By Natalie Voss

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission approved a new rule to regulate the use of cobalt during a regularly-scheduled meeting Tuesday afternoon. The commission unanimously approved a rule that would institute penalties for horses testing over 25 ppb and 50 ppb in serum on the state’s racetracks.

Trainers could be subject to a warning and fine if their horse tests over 25 ppb but under 50 ppb, similar to an overage for a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. A test over 50 ppb will be treated as a Class B drug violation, which could result in up to a two-month suspension, a fine of up to $1,000, and/or purse forfeiture. A test over 25 ppb would result in the horse being placed on the veterinarian’s list until it can successfully test below 25 ppb.

Commission member Alan Leavitt expressed concern that the penalties outlined for cobalt abuse were not strong enough. Leavitt said his experience looking at out-of-competition tests in harness racing taught him that there are horses carrying levels of cobalt in the hundreds, even 350 ppb in a race.

“I have to say, for the people using cobalt, that is not something they are going to take very seriously,” said Leavitt, who thought the substance should be classified as a Class A drug. “The people that are using it, they have huge stables. They have all kinds of horses. They’ll just go on merrily using it on all the rest of their stable.”

Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the commission, reminded members that scientific research on cobalt’s effects in horses does not currently support any notion that it produces the same EPO-like effects that it does in humans. Although she said it may indeed enhance performance, the lack of conclusive research on the subject would make it difficult for the commission to stand its ground if it were taken to court over a penalty structure assigned to heavyweight drugs.

“I’ve seen horses run a hole in the wind … but in terms of successfully prosecuting a case, I think that there is a problem in that we don’t have the science to show what it does,” she said.

The primary concern for Scollay and members of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium is regulating the substance from a welfare standpoint based on its harsh side effects when given in high doses. Horses have been known to tremble, sweat, and experience increased heart and breathing rates in the minutes after receiving large doses of the mineral. Until the research can support a more definitive impact on performance, cobalt can’t be regulated with the same punch as a substance like dermorphin.

Further, Scollay pointed out that cobalt’s half life—the amount of time it takes the concentration in blood to be reduced by half—is one week, which compared to other substances, is quite a long time. That means per Leavitt’s example, a horse testing at 350 ppb post-race would need to be on the veterinarian’s list for as much as five weeks before it could reasonably retest below the 25 ppb limit. This approach has successfully dissuaded abuse of the mineral in California and Minnesota, where a similar penalty was implemented.

Depending upon the measure’s clearance of legislative hurdles, the new rule could be in place late this year or in early 2016.

Also at the meeting, commissioners approved an extension to the recommended withdrawal time for flunixin based on new guidelines from the RMTC, suggesting that trainers withdraw the drug 32 hours, rather than 24 hours ahead of race time to avoid an overage test.

The commission unanimously agreed to remove levamisole from the list of drugs it regulates and add levamisole’s metabolite, aminorex, as a Class B substance. Aminorex is known to have amphetamine-like properties that could enhance performance, although levamisole itself is not believed to have any impact. Levamisole is an anti-protozoal sometimes used off-label to treat Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM).

It’s unknown what amount of aminorex is required to impact performance. Trainers will still be able to use Marquis (ponazuril) without worry of a positive test.

One commissioner inquired why a horse experiencing the unsteady gait characteristic of EPM should be cleared to race at all; Scollay answered that EPM does not always manifest itself in severe hind-end uncoordination but can sometimes be found farther up in the spine, causing milder issues with facial muscles. It has also been associated with roaring in horses who otherwise move normally.

The commission also approved updates to the types of Instant Racing games available at the Red Mile, bringing the track’s offerings closer to what is offered at Ellis Park, along with more machines to cash out winning tickets, and shorter operating hours.