By: Geoffrey Riddle
The British Horseracing Authority has revealed that it is investigating a possible positive cobalt test in Britain.
The positive test was discovered as part of the BHA’s retrospective testing programme and was included in a batch of around 400 tests from the 2016 season.
Speaking to Racing UK’s Luck On Sunday programme Brant Dunshea, the BHA’s director of integrity and raceday operations, said:
“Certainly the overwhelming majority of samples that were retrospectively tested were negative, but there were some lines of inquiry that we are following up in relation to that.
“We do have one matter under investigation.”
When pressed further he added: “I can’t speak about the specifics of the investigation but we do have one matter under investigation.”
It would be the second case of cobalt in Britain, following the bans handed out to Stephen and Michael McConville in September after both admitted to injecting Anseanachai Cliste with a tonic that included cobalt on raceday at Cheltenham in March. Both men claimed they were unaware the injections were potentially performance-enhancing.
When tested, the sample taken from the horse revealed a cobalt level seven times above the permitted level.
“If you put things in to context with what has happened under other jurisdictions, we obviously had the case from Cheltenham last year, which, in a lot of ways, was a very disappointing thing to see at the races,” Dunshea added.
“What I am very proud of is that the way it was managed on the day, and the subsequent investigation and prosecution. You look at what is happening in other countries – there are so many positive findings for cobalt in Australia and on the Continent. In context it reflects well on our industry here.”
Last year the BHA collectively collected around 8,500 samples post-race and close to 2,500 out of competition tests, an increase from 1,846 the previous year. Their pre-race tests increased from 235 in 2016 to nearly 700 in 2017.
Raceday testing of jockeys has also increased, with 2,000 breath samples being taken in 2016, which is double the 2015 total. Urine samples have increased markedly, also.
“We never go in to specifics of our strategy,” Dunshea said.
“We have a random generator, which generates one horse that is selected each day at a fixture. We have some samples that are intelligence-led and have specific samples that are collected as a result of a hores’s performance in relation to the pattern races.”
International racing regulatory efforts have been focused in the past few years to establish a raceday threshold for cobalt in horses and they succeeded, in part, when a threshold was agreed in April 2016 and then implemented in Britain.
The threshold was agreed and the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities adopted a raceday urinary threshold for cobalt of 0.01 micrograms (= 100 nanograms) total cobalt per millilitre in urine.
Whilst cobalt is an essential trace element and is naturally present in horses, it may also have the potential to enhance performance when present at concentrations that exceed normal physiological parameters. It has been proven in animals to enhance the number of red cells in the blood which carry oxygen around the body and therefore help maintain peak performance for longer. It can act in some ways like the performance-enhancing drug erythropoietin, or EPO.
It is also possible that exposure to significantly increased levels of cobalt may have welfare implications for the horse.