By Frank Angst

The Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council will advise the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to adopt rules on the mineral cobalt in line with a Racing Medication and Testing Consortium recommendation.

The KEDRC voted May 26 at the Kentucky Horse Park to recommend a Class B penalty when horses test above 50 parts per billion of cobalt in blood; and lesser penalties, ranging from a warning to a $500 fine for the trainer, when a horse tests between 25-50 parts per billion for the mineral that occurs naturally in horses but has been abused in recent years.

KHRC equine medical director Dr. Mary Scollay said the performance-enhancing effects of cobalt are still being studied, but she noted that the policies being recommended are to protect the welfare of the horse. Scollay said there’s no reason to give high levels of cobalt to horses.

“There is no deficiency of cobalt levels documented in the racehorse,” Scollay said.

In new business that was related to the cobalt recommendation, the KEDRC also voted to recommend that all claimed horses be sent for testing after a race. The KEDRC acknowledged that details related to the recommendation will need to be hammered out—specifically who pays for such tests—but KEDRC members said such a policy is needed to protect new connections when they claim a horse.

The KEDRC unanimously approved the recommendation.

The cobalt policy recommendation was not unanimously approved as committee members Andy Roberts, a veterinarian, and Rick Hiles, president of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, both opposed it. Roberts said he’s largely comfortable with the policy for when horses test in excess of 50 parts per billion, but he’s concerned about any sanctions when horses test in the 25-50 range.

Roberts noted that some supplements administered after races increase cobalt levels, and that in Standardbred racing, in which horses typically race more often than Thoroughbreds, the 25-50 range could trip up some trainers who are trying to follow the rules.

He said that in Canada, the most popular post-race supplement, also known as a vitamin jug, is Hemo 15, which he said contains cobalt. Roberts said he’d hate to see a horseman ship in from Canada and have a positive test because he didn’t understand the jug contains cobalt.

Scollay said in the months before the rule would become policy, KHRC staff would make an effort to inform and educate horsemen. Scollay said she didn’t think any orally administrated supplement or food additive could cause a big enough cobalt spike for a horse to fall into the 25-to-50 range. She said supplements administered through injection would be of more concern.

During the Keeneland meet, KHRC staff tested the cobalt levels of every horse that had a post-race drug test—about 20% of the starters at the meet. None of the horses tested at or above the 25 parts per billion cobalt level, with the highest level coming back at 14.2 and the lowest at 0.37.

“We’re going to send notices to the horsemen and vets,” Scollay said. “This (policy) isn’t going to catch anyone by surprise.”

Hiles raised concerns about trainers who claim a horse previously administered high cobalt levels. Scollay said cobalt levels have a half-life of about a week so a horse with an 800 parts per billion level—according to the KHRC such levels were found in Standardbreds that raced in 2014 at The Red Mile—it would be 400 after a week, 200 after two weeks, 100 after three weeks, and still likely to test above 25 a month out.

Because of that concern, the KEDRC later in the meeting voted to recommend that all claimed horses be subject to drug tests. Currently, new connections can request that such tests, at the expense of the new owner, be conducted after they claim a horse.

The KEDRC makes policy recommendations to the KHRC. The cobalt recommendation is in line with the uniform threshold for cobalt regulation approved in March by the RMTC. That threshold was developed and recommended by the RMTC Scientific Advisory Committee.

It calls for horses that test above 25 parts per billion of cobalt in plasma to be subject to a fine or a warning for the first offense; placed on the veterinarian’s list; and ineligible to race until they test below 25 parts per billion of cobalt in plasma.

Horses that test above 50 parts per billion of cobalt in plasma will be subject to a Class B penalty which in Kentucky includes disqualification of the horse and purse redistribution; a fine; and trainer suspension.

In April the Association of Racing Commissioners International board of directors approved the Class B penalty recommendation for horses that test above 50 parts per billion for cobalt. But the RCI Drug Testing Standards and Practices Committee voted to accept a proposal that any reading between 25 and 50 parts per billion be dealt with at the discretion of individual state regulatory agencies.

The KEDRC recommendation is in line with the RMTC cobalt guidance.

Also during Tuesday’s KEDRC meeting, a threshold of 110 parts per billion in serum was recommended for the naturally occurring amino acid gamma-aminobutyric acid. Scollay said levels above that threshold would indicate an illegal race-day administration of GABA.

The threshold is in line with the RMTC’s recommendation on GABA this year. The RMTC advised that GABA is believed to have a calming effect on racehorses for up to three to four hours and has been inappropriately administered on race day as a performance-enhancer through a supplement called Carolina Gold.

Concerns about adverse reactions of this substance in horses led to its ban by the United States Equestrian Federation.

Scollay said the KHRC has not seen abuse of GABA since regulatory veterinarians took over the race-day administration of furosemide, also called Salix or Lasix, in the fall of 2012. The policy has kept racetrack vets out of horse’s stalls on race day.

The KEDRC also listened to a presentation from Dr. Rick Sams, lab director at HFL Sport Science, on a Salix study that was used by KHRC staff to form the Salix threshold of 1,000 picograms per milliliter in serum for horses who race in future “Salix-free” races planned in the state. In March, following a request by Keeneland, the KHRC approved tracks to write conditions that prohibit race-day Salix; Keeneland hopes to conduct such races in 2016.

The KHRC approved the 1,000-picogram threshold at its May meeting, but several commissioners expressed concern that protocol was not followed because the KEDRC did not first consider the threshold.

Sams said that in 20 horses studied at Kentucky Equine Research, in Kentucky and Florida, horses administered Kentucky’s maximum dosage of Salix of 10 ccs showed levels from 135 to 576 picograms 24 hours out. The 1,000 threshold provides for some cushion for horsemen.