RACING Victoria says the five Victorian trainers with cobalt positives will learn on Monday whether they can compete ahead of the spring carnival, when a decision in their "show-cause" hearing is handed down.

 In a COMMENT PIECE for FAIRFAX MEDIA, PATRICK BARTLEY claims that listening to Damian Sheales, the lawyer appearing on behalf of Mark Kavanagh and Danny O'Brien, one almost expected the stewards to apologise for subjecting them to an inquiry.

In a theatrical performance reminiscent of Rumpole of the Bailey, Sheales cast aspersions on everyone, saying the cobalt fiasco was a storm in a tea cup – a perfect storm created by Racing Victoria itself.

Sheales said the hysteria around cobalt was created and perpetuated by Racing Victoria and pointed a finger at RV's head vet, Brian Stewart, as the instigator of the cobalt drama. Sheales went further and said there was no evidence cobalt affected performance in horses, no evidence that it was toxic. He claimed the science was new and evolving and the hysteria was  confined to Australia. In the US, there was a two-tiered penalty system where horses were prevented from racing until cobalt levels dropped and if they were higher, trainers faced only fines.

Sheales also had a crack at Fairfax Media for unbalanced reporting. 

Sheales did, however, say that both Kavanagh and O'Brien now admit that the cobalt in their horses got there through IV drips given by Flemington Equine Clinic vets. This change of heart by the two top trainers is hardly surprising as beleaguered vet Tom Brennan, head of FEC, had made similar admissions to stewards more than a week ago.

O'Brien and Kavanagh flatly denied any knowledge of this cobalt and Sheales labelled Brennan a liar. 

Neither Kavanagh nor O'Brien offered any explanation about the alleged payment of thousands of dollars to Brennan for the "vitamin mix".

Let us present some facts about cobalt.

Sheales asserted that there is no evidence that cobalt is performance-enhancing in the horse. So what? There is plenty of evidence that cobalt has the potential to be performance-enhancing because of its action, and there are studies to show it enhances performance in other species. 

Cobalt is banned in every sport by the World Anti-Doping Agency. It is banned because it acts as an HIF stabiliser, a category of drug that is specifically listed as banned. HIFs cause the body to produce more red blood cells, improving endurance.

The role of the stewards is to create rules to protect the integrity of the industry, not to run studies proving the effect of a banned drug. In this manner the history of cobalt is interesting, racing authorities had intelligence that cobalt was being abused in the US a couple of years ago.

At this time WADA had already banned cobalt, but as it occurs in trace amounts in horses this meant that racing regulators had to develop and then set a threshold which would only catch those abusing or cheating with cobalt.

The international racing community collaborated and shared information on cobalt levels to set an international threshold.

In a damming indictment of our racing, Australian horses were excluded because there was already evidence that cobalt abuse was occurring here and our levels would not help determine a proper normal threshold. In Hong Kong the threshold was set at 100 micrograms per litre of urine, this is likely to be adopted internationally, while Victoria introduced 200 in April last year, 200 was ratified by the Australian Racing Board (ARB), Australia-wide on January 1 this year.

Australia's threshold of 200 level is described by international regulators as very generous. Early last year when Racing Victoria started testing for cobalt, results indicated that cobalt abuse was occurring. This prompted Terry Bailey to publicly declare that stewards knew cobalt was being used, that RV were testing, that a 200 threshold would be introduced, and most importantly that this was a "prohibited substance". If anyone was caught there would be serious penalties, a three-year disqualification.

When the rule was  introduced on April 14 last year, there was no hysteria, no need for RV to prove cobalt enhances performance. There was simply a rule in place to stop cobalt abuse.

Sheales also said there was no evidence that cobalt was harmful. He must have neglected to read a recent article in the latest copy of the Veterinary Journal tilted "Cobalt Chloride doping in Race horses – Concerns over a potentially lethal practice".

In this international peer-reviewed journal, Professor Mobasheri from the University of Surrey detailed many toxic effects of cobalt, including nerve damage, fatal heart changes, blood and thyroid changes.

However most telling was Mobasheri's statement that "in the US there have been reports of unexplained deaths in horses that were found to have elevated levels of cobalt chloride".

Mobasheri raised concerns about the use of impure and non-pharmaceutical grade cobalt causing significant toxicity and said it is totally irresponsible and unethical to administer such cobalt to horses.

Finally Mobasheri felt moved to quote Paracelsus, the father of toxicology, who wrote "all things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose makes a thing poison".

In light of the harmful effects of cobalt surely there is no better quote justifying the need for a threshold.

In Kentucky Dr Mary Scollay, medical director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, who ran a cobalt trial to help develop a US blood threshold, was damming in her criticism of cobalt.

Scollay observed that cobalt at high levels affected the ability of blood to clot which could be disastrous, leading to a fatal bleeding attack.

In Scollay's trial horses given high doses of cobalt reacted badly, sweating, trembling and some collapsing, this caused Scollay to say that creating a cobalt threshold for horses was a welfare issue.

The RSPCA have already voiced their concern to the ARB and are monitoring the Victorian cases.

The clear evidence on cobalt from a welfare perspective means we should expect our regulators to set thresholds and rules that protect the welfare of those involved in racing horses, track riders and jockeys.

Finally Sheales said the hysteria was only in Australia and pointed to the US, saying that there is a two-tiered penalty system in place where horses over a level are stood down until cobalt levels drop and if they are higher, then the trainers are only fined.

In fact the US Racing Commission is currently debating the implementation of a third tier – one where the trainer is disqualified for 10 years if very high levels are detected in his horses.


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