The United States Trotting Association said June 16 it will fund a project designed to develop regulatory controls for the use of cobalt in racehorses.
Cobalt is used to stimulate red blood cell production. USTA officials said the substance is being detected in all breeds of racehorses.
The research will be performed by Dr. George Maylin of the New York Drug Testing and Research Program at Morrisville State College in New York. He will be assisted by Dr. Karyn Malinowski and Dr. Ken McKeever, the director and associate director, respectively, of the Equine Science Center at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"It has become obvious that in all racing breeds the presence of cobalt is being detected," USTA president Phil Langley said in a release. "Since it is a naturally occurring substance, the question that arises is when the amount is natural and when is it added to a horse's system to enhance performance. We believe this research will give all breeds a standard that will withstand any court challenges."
Maylin said he initiated discussions with the USTA and Joe Faraldo, president of the Standardbred Owners of New York and a USTA director.
"Cobalt has been rumored to be used with horses for a number of years," Maylin said. "It started perhaps six or seven years ago. So we started delving into the literature and did research. It became apparent that cobalt was getting widespread use, but only recently has there been concern in horses."
Maylin said the research requires new testing equipment. "We now have a state-of-the-art instrument, the Agilent 8800 Triple Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer ICP-MS, that we are going to get access to lease for five years and have to a way to pay for it, thanks to the USTA."
Maylin said he hopes the results of the research are available by the end of this summer.
Ed Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, praised the action by the USTA, noting it is a "positive, proactive development that underscores the ongoing efforts of the racing industry and its regulator labs to counter efforts to cheat".
In a release, RCI said some states have already been using the ICP-MS instrumentation to test for cobalt, both in and out of competition, and that commissions have been collecting samples for months.
A research project being conducted by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium is scheduled for completion this summer to determine an appropriate threshold for cobalt, according to RCI. Although the USTA funded Maylin-McKeever-Malinowski research project may appear redundant to the effort currently underway by the RMTC, Martin said that "the more data is developed, our efforts to analyze the science and develop sound policies is enhanced."
In 2009, the Ontario Racing Commission issued the following notice on cobalt, according to RCI.
"The Ontario Racing Commission advises horsepeople to be very cautious with the administration of the substance cobalt sulphate to their horses. This mineral element is a water-soluble cobalt salt with a variety of industrial and agricultural uses, including being used as an ingredient in feed and mineral supplements.
"Used in safe and appropriate formulations, the substance is known to have certain blood building qualities. However, speculation about 'performance enhancing' qualities are doubtful."
The ORC's then veterinarian supervisor, Dr. Bruce Duncan, noted that "when administered in appropriate quantities, there is likely very little performance benefit. And when used in excess, this element can be toxic to horses."
RCI said cobalt is a constituent of vitamin B-12, and as a result, there is no recommended dietary allowance for it. Cobalt is one of the microminerals important for blood cell formation. The microbes in a horse's digestive system, particularly the large intestine, use the cobalt from a normal diet to incorporate it into Vitamin B-12. This vitamin is then used in conjunction with iron and copper in the formation and maintenance of blood cells.