Cobalt charges shock racing industry

Four trainers have been charged over their involvement in administering an illegal substance to their horses. Patrick Bartley reports on the cobalt case that will rock the racing world.

Four leading Australian trainers are facing possible three-year bans after Racing Victoria stewards charged them on 29 counts relating to the administration of the banned substance cobalt, and a leading veterinary surgeon on a further 20 counts.

Danny O’Brien (16 counts), Mark Kavanagh (four) and Lee and Shannon Hope (nine) have been charged with breaching the rules of racing after eight  horses in their stables returned illegally high cobalt readings.

Veterinary surgeon and Flemington Equine Clinic principal Dr Tom Brennan has been charged with administering cobalt and that he supplied or caused to supply to O’Brien and Kavanagh a substance containing a high level of cobalt.

Kavanagh in the mounting yard at Sandown in January.Kavanagh in the mounting yard at Sandown in January. Photo: Pat Scala

The bulk of the charges relate to cobalt levels in excess of the permissable national threshold of 200 micrograms per litre of urine.

No date has been set for the hearings.

In releasing the charges, Racing Victoria for the first time detailed the levels of cobalt found. They are: Danny O’Brien – Bondeiger (370mcg/L), Caravan Rolls On (380), De Little Engine (580), Bullpit (320); Mark Kavanagh – Magicool (640); Lee and Shannon Hope – Windy Citi Bear (300), Best Suggestion (550) and Choose (440).

Racing Victoria integrity general manager Dayle Brown said on Thursday: “Today’s issuing of charges against five persons follows an exhaustive and complex investigation by Racing Victoria’s integrity services team into elevated cobalt samples.

“We have dedicated considerable resources to completing these investigations as swiftly as possible while insuring they were thorough.”

Brown said that the team had undertaken extensive forsensic analysis and testing.

He added that the investigation into Peter Moody remained ongoing while further testing was conducted.

Cobalt is needed by horses only in trace amounts that are adequately provided in normal feed. It is toxic when administered at high levels.

Cobalt causes the body to believe it is deprived of oxygen and it therefore produces an increased amount of EPO (Erythropoietin). When present at high levels, it can stimulate red blood cell production to carry more oxygen throughout the body, allowing a horse to perform at peak levels. It is rapidly excreted or cleared from the body.

There are two key issues stemming from the charges.

One, horses normally have cobalt readings in single digits, so how did these horses return such massively elevated levels, particularly given that raceday treatments of any type are prohibited in Australia and that normal cobalt supplements are cleared from urine within five hours.

Two, what is the source of cobalt? Normal supplements cannot produce extreme elevations of cobalt.

The international racing community has been aware of the abuse of cobalt as a performance-enhancing drug for years, resulting in a high level of co-operation and information-sharing between countries.

Pooled data was presented at an international conference in Mauritius last September. The aim was to inform international racing authorities of a suitable cobalt threshold, one that would allow cobalt supplements to be used but which would also allow jurisdictions to catch those cheating.

In this collaborative effort, 11 countries contributed horses’ post-race urine samples. Five international laboratories tested the samples and also exchanged samples to prevent any bias.

In examining 10,300 urine samples, the highest recorded cobalt reading was 78mcg/L. The average level was 5.29mcg/L. These results included many horses on normal cobalt supplementation programs.