By: Clay Wilson
New Zealand Sports Hall of Famer Lance O’Sullivan and co-trainer Andrew Scott say the high cobalt readings for three of their horses came from water troughs the horses shared with cattle.
The troughs had been dosed with cobalt to assist the health of the cattle, their lawyer said.
The pair admitted three of their horses raced with more than the maximum level of cobalt allowed in their system last year.
The pair, who operate out of the Wexford Stables in Matamata, pleaded guilty at a Judicial Control Authority hearing at Ellerslie racecourse on Wednesday to presenting three horses to race with a prohibited substance.
The JCA tribunal is expected to release its decision on penalty before the end of this week.
The Racing Integrity Unit is seeking fines of $20,000 per horse and total costs of $12,000. The maximum fine per horse is $25,000. They are not asking for O’Sullivan and Scott to be banned.
O’Sullivan’s and Scott’s lawyer, QC Alan Galbraith said a total fine of $60,000 would be a “breathtaking” figure for New Zealand racing and instead fines around 5000 for each of the three horses.
Cobalt occurs naturally in horses at low levels but when it is present in abnormally high levels it can act in a similar way to EPO, stimulating the production of red blood cells and increasing oxygen to the blood. NZ Racing has a threshold of 200 micrograms per litre of urine allowed for horses racing.
The horses concerned are Sound Proposition, who returned a reading of 541 after he finished third in the New Zealand Derby at Ellerslie in February last year; Quintastics, who had a reading of 640 after winning at Matamata in March last year, and Suffire, whose swab returned 309 after her win at Tauranga in February last year
All three horses have been disqualified from the races in question and the $81,875 won in stakes must be repaid to New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing so it can be redistributed to the owners whose horses are promoted as a result.
The circumstances surrounding the elevated readings were significant in the RIU’s decision not to lay the stronger charge of administration of a prohibited substance.
O’Sullivan and Scott told the RIU the readings were a result of exposure to “heavily cobalt-dosed water troughs the horses shared with dairy cattle”.
Galbraith said racehorses and dairy cattle had shared troughs on the Wexford property as a long-standing practice and dairy farm manager Alan Haines had added cobalt to the troughs at “larger than advised” levels without understanding the ramifications for the horses.
Dairy cattle are sometimes required to be supplemented with small amounts of cobalt to assist with their nutrition and health.
Galbraith said the situation was an “unfortunate set of events” and added his clients had already paid a significant cost, financially and otherwise, since the RIU investigation began almost nine months ago.
RIU lawyer Brian Dickey said they did not believe it was an appropriate case to seek a ban for the charge of presenting a horse to race with a prohibited substance, but felt the penalty needed to be significant as the case struck at the integrity of the racing industry.
Dickey said the manner in which the three horses reached elevated cobalt levels, while not deliberate, equated to gross negligence and was a major departure from the standard of care expected from licensed trainers.
The RIU did not endorse O’Sullivan’s and Scott’s explanation as true, but had been unable to exclude the possibility.
O’Sullivan was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame last month and was the country’s champion jockey 12 times before retiring in 2003. He rejoined the training group at Wexford in 2013 after Scott had been in charge for five years.
The stable has produced more than 70 Group I winners and O’Sullivan was apprenticed to his father, master trainer Dave O’Sullivan.
O’Sullivan and Scott are the first horsemen to be punished for a cobalt offence in New Zealand since the racing industry started testing for the substance in mid-2014.
The problem is much more widespread in Australia, where several big-name trainers have been caught in the trap. Melbourne Cup-winning trainer Mark Kavanagh and Danny O’Brien, two of Victoria’s highest-profile trainers, were found guilty of racing horses with elevated levels of cobalt. Kavanagh and O’Brien were banned in January for three and four years, respectively, by the Racing and Appeals Disciplinary Board.
On Wednesday, Peter Moody, trainer of the famed Black Caviar, was cleared by Victoria’s Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board of intentionally administering cobalt to affect a racehorse’s performance. But he was instead found guilty of a lesser administration charge with a judge declaring “the buck stops with him” after the horse Lidari returned a cobalt level double the allowed threshold.
Racing New South Wales banned Newcastle trainer Darren Smith for 15 years on 42 cobalt charges in March last year.
COBALT AND THE CHARGES
What is cobalt?
An essential trace element that occurs naturally in horses, dogs and other mammals.
Why is it a prohibited substance in racing?
Cobalt administered in amounts much greater than required for normal living affects the blood system by stimulating the production of red blood cells (erythropoiesis), similar to the way EPO does.
Why is there a threshold for cobalt?
Because it is naturally occurring in horses, so a level has been set above what could be considered to be a range for a normal population. The threshold of 200 micrograms per litre of urine has been set for horse racing in Australasia. This was based on a study of 2000 samples carried out by the Chemistry Centre, an internationally accredited racing laboratory in Perth, Western Australia.
How much drug testing is carried out in NZ racing?
Each racing season more than 12,000 drug tests are carried out.
Why has the O’Sullivan/ Scott investigation taken almost nine months?
Cobalt is a newly identified performance-enhancing drug and studies on how it can be applied to breach the threshold have been limited. Significant time has been spent investigating this area and carrying out trials. Trials have to be ethically approved, and the results analysed and peer reviewed.
What is the difference in being charged with administration of a prohibited substance and charged with presenting a horse to race with a prohibited substance?
The charge of administration is made where there is evidence of deliberate administration of the prohibited substance. The charge of presenting is where there is no evidence of deliberate administration, or where the prohibited substance entered the animal’s system through negligence, contamination or some other means.
What were the potential penalties?
Up to five years suspension or disqualification and up to $25,000 fine.