According to a Fairfax Media report, a group of respected horse veterinarians from around Australia are dismayed at the direction the cobalt debate has taken.
They contacted Fairfax Media to express their deep concerns over the misuse of cobalt and their fears of animal welfare. They contend that some sections of the racing media have allowed the Victorian trainers whose horses returned high cobalt readings to criticise Racing Victoria officials, even to the point of suggesting “entrapment”.
The vets said: “What about the horse? Who is looking after the health and welfare of the horse?
“The real debate here is one of animal welfare and even perhaps animal cruelty.”
They say there can be no doubt about the toxicity of cobalt as a heavy metal poison. “There is an actual case study from a brewery in Canada in the mid-1960s where cobalt was added to the beer which very quickly led to over 50 Quebec beer drinkers developing heart disease and 20 of these beer drinkers died.
“When the cobalt additive was stopped, so did the deaths and the brewery was closed down soon after.”
The group maintains chronic or long-term poisoning by cobalt, which is usually irreversible, is just as important as the acute toxicity. The heavy metal accumulates in the body over time and can affect the brain, heart, liver and kidneys, they say.
They point to an article last month that reported a huge medical class action lawsuit in Australia involving cobalt. The report said thousands of patients who had had metal-on-metal hip replacements were claiming that the implants were leaching cobalt into local tissue and, as a result, were poisoning them.
The companies that manufactured the implants were the subject of class actions in Australia and the US.
The vets were at pains to point out that horses do not need cobalt and that there has never been any report of cobalt deficiency in horses.
Cobalt is needed to produce vitamin B12, but a horse on a balanced diet gets enough dietary B12. However, if one wanted to supplement the horse, it would be appropriate to use vitamin B12 directly, not cobalt, they said.
“The Victorian and Australian threshold of 200 micrograms/litre urine represents cobalt in the body at toxic levels, as the normal level of cobalt is less than 10 mcg/litre. Cobalt has been widely identified as a blood doping agent which is why it is banned in all sports, and also why it has come on to the radar of horseracing here and around the world,” they said.
“The human sports medicine community is constantly warning athletes of the dangers of cobalt abuse; this means that a human athlete using cobalt has made a conscious decision to ignore these warnings in the pursuit of performance enhancement. Horses don’t have that luxury.
“In racing we entrust animal welfare to the trainers and their veterinarians. However, watching over are the racing regulators who need to step in when the system is failing the horse. This welfare role of racing regulators is non-negotiable. It is as important a role as that of looking after the integrity of racing and creating a level playing field. For without the regulators enforcing animal welfare, there is a chance it might get lost in the mire of gambling and winning.”
The vets also questioned the source of cobalt, as they believed it was implausible that cobalt readings over the Australian threshold of 200 mcg/litre could be achieved through the proper use of normal cobalt-containing supplements.
They pointed to the recent case of disgraced trainer Darren Smith in NSW who admitted using a “bootleg” cobalt supplement obtained from a warned-off harness racing identity.
There is also the ongoing investigation into the Victorian veterinary surgeon who has admitted to RV stewards that he bought cobalt, repackaged it in his “kitchen” and then provided it to between eight and 12 local horse trainers.
The idea that a vet would supply non-proprietary cobalt to horse trainers to boost performance is deeply troubling.
Cobalt first came to light in the United States in January 2014 via the online “Paulick Report” from Kentucky. It detailed the banning of horses with high cobalt readings from the privately owned racetrack the Meadowlands and the ongoing investigation into seven cases of sudden death in one Californian thoroughbred racing stable.
More recently in the US, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium announced a uniform threshold for cobalt across the US. The consortium consists of leading chemists, pharmacologists, regulatory veterinarians and racetrack veterinarians from across the US horse racing industry.
Dr Rick Arthur, the RMTC secretary and California’s equine medical director, said: “This proposal is designed to protect the health and welfare of the racehorse”, and that the new plasma levels (25ppb) were exactly equivalent to the 100-200 international urine thresholds. However, Racing Commissioners International president Ed Martin went further and predicted that deliberate cobalt administration would be banned due to equine welfare concerns. The RCI is the law maker and the US equivalent of the Australian Racing Board.
Martin cited complaints made to regulatory veterinarians in several jurisdictions that cobalt administration had caused distress and colic in horses, creating cramps, muscle twitching, sweating and pain. “We believe it is wrong to deliberately put a horse in discomfort with no compelling medical reason to treat the horse,” he said. “This issue is about the horse and not just about doping.”