By Tom LaMarra

The Association of Racing Commissioners International board of directors April 23 approved a testing threshold level and penalties for the mineral cobalt, a naturally occurring substance in racehorses.

During a meeting in Tampa, Fla., the RCI Drug Testing Standards and Practices Committee took testimony from the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and its own Scientific Advisory Committee before its vote, which came before the closed board meeting. The recommendations from the two groups were similar.

The committee approved, for consideration by the RCI Model Rules Committee in July, a trigger of 50 parts per billion of cobalt in plasma. At that point, it would be considered a Class B penalty with a 15-day suspension, a $500 fine, and disqualification of the horse in question.

The RMTC and RCI scientific advisory committees had agreed on that number, but the RMTC also recommended that a horse that tests above 25 parts per billion be placed on the veterinarian’s list until it tests below that amount, and that trainers receive a fine or warning. 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.

Later in the day, however, the full board changed that to reflect the RMTC recommendation: There would be a warning to the trainer and a horse would placed on the vet’s list until it tests for less than 25 parts per billion.

The committee also voted to set a finding of 300 or more parts per billion of cobalt in plasma as the trigger for penalties more in line with those for blood-doping: a 10-year ban from racing. RCI officials, however, acknowledged the lack of definitive information whether high levels of cobalt have blood-doping qualities or can impact performance, so they said the figure of 300 could be adjusted based on research developments.

The full board, according to RCI president Ed Martin, deferred action on the recommendation.

“It will be tied in with the excessive administration rule we’re now developing,” he said.

The committee didn’t take action on a testing threshold for gamma-aminobutyric acid, commonly referred to as GABA, because the RCI Scientific Advisory Committee cited a study that recommended a higher threshold (190 nanograms per milliliter) than one recommended by the RMTC (110 nanograms per milliliter). The RCI Scientific Advisory Committee couldn’t agree on a number.

The discussion was sidetracked by continued conflict over what is published scientific work versus unpublished scientific work.

GABA, found in the supplement Carolina Gold, has a calming effect. According to drug-test results, its use has been greatly curtailed since third-party veterinarians began administering furosemide, the anti-bleeding medication also known as Salix or Lasix, on race day.

It is also believed sample testing by racing regulators in several states has reduced use of cobalt salts in racehorses. Dr. Scott Palmer, equine medical director for the New York State Gaming Commission, said samples before and after an announcement on cobalt was made were telling.

Before the announcement of cobalt testing in New York, the average sample contained 18 parts per billion of cobalt. After the announcement, subsequent tests produced an average of 0.5 parts per billion.

Though there is no documentation cobalt has blood-doping qualities or can enhance performance, research in Kentucky shows administration of cobalt salts can lead to discomfort in horses similar to that of colic. The racing industry considers it an equine “health and welfare” issue and therefore believes there must be sanctions.