As investigations continue into the positive test results to Cobalt of horses trained by Peter Moody,Mark Kavanagh and Danny O’Brien, it is important to understand the effect that the substance has.
As referenced by the Australian rules of racing, Cobalt is a naturally occurring trace element which may normally be present in horses at very low levels as a result of the ingestion of feedstuffs that contain it in trace amounts. Cobalt is also present in the structure of vitamin B12.
Research that began in the 1940s and 50s showed that mice would produce a 30% increase in the number of red blood cells and haemoglobin when administered Cobalt.
When more red blood cells are generated then there is a greater ability to carry oxygen through the body and thus allow peak performance levels to be maintained for longer.
Over the past decade, the use of Cobalt and its ability to improve endurance has been well researched and it has been shown that, in humans, administration of Cobalt has similar results to erythropoietin – EPO.
Athletes have used Cobalt and EPO for many years as a performance enhancing substance, administered usually by injection. Excess EPO production has been linked to the deaths of athletes and cyclists.
Cobalt can be administered to horses easily as a powder, feed supplement or injection. Although naturally occurring in horses, excessive amounts of the substance in the system can lead to severe side effects.
United States racing officials became concerned with the use of Cobalt in January 2013 when officials detected its presence in a large number of samples that were taken at The Meadowlands in New Jersey.
Concerns regarding the side effects go back decades. In the mid-1960s, Cobalt was added to a beer making formula by several North American brewers to stabilize foam. Many heavy beer drinkers started to develop heart disease and died from cardiovascular failure. Once evidence showed that the addition of Cobalt was the cause. It was stopped.
Trainers were warned of the severe side effects of its use, which included damaging the thyroid, cardiovascular system, nerve problems, and blood thickening.
Harness Racing New South Wales became aware of the use of Cobalt in Australian racing in September, 2013 and they began testing for the substance. A threshold was set of 200 micrograms per litre.
Racing Victoria Stewards started to become concerned about the use of Cobalt at around the same time. On April 14, 2014, Racing Victoria Stewards also set a threshold of 200 micrograms per litre.
This threshold has now been adopted by the Australian Racing Board as rule of racing AR. 178C (1).