What's The Real Story Behind The Cobalt Mess?... By Rob Young

Danny O'Brien became one of the faces of the Cobalt saga.

Danny O'Brien became one of the faces of the Cobalt saga.

Justice Greg Garde of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal just may have sprung the lid on much more than any of us expected when he allowed the appeals by Danny O’Brien and Mark Kavanagh against their cobalt convictions last week.

Certainly, Justice Garde was pretty blunt about finding that the process adopted by Racing Victoria for testing for cobalt “substantially departed” from the requirements set out in the Rules of Racing. “Substantially departed” simply means that Racing Victoria, and that means the Chief Steward and his integrity team have been found by the judge to have not followed Rule AR178D, the rule that sets out very clearly how samples taken from horses are to be tested, how control samples are to be tested by either a different laboratory or supervised by a qualified analyst who was not responsible for the initial testing, and how the notifications of test results are to be done.

That situation is of real concern. The judgement is very detailed and quite lengthy, and would certainly be expected to detail those areas of Rule AR178D that caused Justice Garde to reach the decision to allow the appeals. But, when you read AR178D, it’s quite simple to work out the possibilities. Either the control samples were not tested by a second Official Racing Laboratory, or the control samples were tested under the wrong supervisory circumstances. So, the only possible conclusion, if Justice Garde is correct in his finding, is that somebody in Racing Victoria took a short cut in the testing process that led to the charges being laid against O’Brien and Kavanagh. That failing, if it did indeed happen, has to be laid at the feet of the Chief Steward and the integrity team.

And it is very likely that we will see Racing Victoria back in the courts, this time on the wrong side of a legal process. Kavanagh is on the record as stating that his stable strength has been reduced by 80%, and O’Brien has accused the Chief Steward and his integrity team of bullying and vilifying not only himself and Kavanagh, but their families as well. Racing Victoria may well have to dip into its’ very deep pockets!

If that occurs, it needs to be viewed in the light of the other issues surrounding Racing Victoria stewards and the way they operate.

So, now we have Sam Kavanagh – out for 9 years and 3 months – and the veterinarian concerned was Dr Tom Brennan. We have Mark Kavanagh and Danny O’Brien – enduring a 26-month process –  and the veterinarian concerned was Dr Tom Brennan, now disqualified for five years. Not hard to see the link, is it? It’s also worth remembering that trainers are trainers, not veterinarians. Just like we trust doctors, trainers have to trust vets. Justice Garde said the tribunal was not satisfied to the requisite standard that the trainers had caused Dr Brennan to administer the substance which contained a high concentration of cobalt chloride to the horses and which produced a spike in their cobalt readings. If that is the case, then the probability has to be there that the veterinarian did not tell the trainers of the possibility of a cobalt problem stemming from his treatment. The argument that the veterinarian may not have been aware of the possibility of a cobalt problem stemming from his treatment is specious. It is his job to be aware.

But the situation gets even murkier.

In 2013, Racing Victoria introduced a threshold of 200 micrograms per litre of cobalt in urine sample taken from racehorses. This level lined up with overseas practice but has since been reduced, in September 2016, to 100 micrograms per litre. What does this mean?

The reality is that all horses have a base cobalt level in their system. It gets there by completely normal and ethical means, as cobalt is a trace element present in Vitamin B12, horse feeds and feed supplements. It’s also found in human foods – nuts, leafy green vegetables, fish and cereals. Like lots of trace elements, cobalt is part of everyday life.  Cobalt’s ubiquity in traditional feeds and other supplements means that the small daily cobalt requirement of horses to be healthy is more than satisfied through diet. To get elevated cobalt levels in racehorses at the levels found in the Kavanagh and O’Brien horses, you have to feed very significant amounts of cobalt, usually as a cobalt chloride solution.

And that’s where the problem lies.

Paracelsus - the Swiss German physician and philosopher generally considered to be the father of toxicology – is famous for saying “Poison is in everything and no thing is without poison. Only the dose makes a thing a poison”. With cobalt, the doses required to reach those elevated readings are getting quite close to that poisonous level.

Once that level is reached, cobalt can cause colic-like symptoms like abnormal sweating, anxiety, trembling and even collapse. Those high levels can also trigger laminitis, a hoof ailment which is almost always fatal. Those symptoms of trembling and abnormal sweating were the symptoms shown by Sam Kavanagh’s horse Midsummer Sun after winning the Gosford Cup in 2015.

The question has to be asked – why take the risk?

Well, cobalt is supposed to boost performance in the same way as EPO does in humans. It increases the number of red blood cells and haemoglobin allowing the body to have a greater ability to carry oxygen in the bloodstream and thus allow peak performance levels to be maintained for longer.

But does it?

Cobalt has been proven to stimulate the production of EPO and red blood cells in mammals, but a study of racehorses given excessive levels of cobalt at the University of Surrey in the UK found that a single dose “had no effect on EPO concentrations, red blood cell parameters or heart rate in any of the horses studied”. The study also found that “high doses of impure cobalt chloride may be associated with significant toxicity and it is totally irresponsible and unethical to administer them to horses. It is the duty of veterinary surgeons working in the racing industry to ensure trainers are aware of the dangers of the ‘amateur’ use of a potentially fatal compound”.

I am not saying that there are no unscrupulous trainers, but, by and large, trainers will not put the horses in their care willfully at risk. It’s just not good for business! But they will take advice on supplements from their veterinarian – and that seems to be where this whole saga started.