JCU veterinary researcher questions cobalt usage in horse racing

The use of cobalt in horse racing should be halted until the scientific evidence of its effects is established, a James Cook University veterinary researcher says.

JCU Veterinary School
JCU Prof Dr Robert Kinobe (photo: JCU)
Cobalt is an essential dietary trace element but the ability for it to serve as a potent performance-enhancing substance has been known for decades. It can dramatically increase the production of red blood cells in mammals, making them perform harder, faster and for longer periods of time.

In the past few years, many horse racing authorities have become concerned about the worldwide anecdotal use of cobalt as a doping agent because of its potential to cause severe toxicity of the thyroid gland and heart.

Last year, Racing Victoria established a threshold for cobalt at 200 micrograms per litre in urine and this standard has been adopted nationwide in Australia.

JCU’s Dr Robert Kinobe, senior lecturer of veterinary pharmacology, has published a peer-reviewed paper on cobalt, and the effects of excessive use of the element.

It is a world-first, comprehensive review of all studies into the use of cobalt in horse racing.

Based on his research findings, Dr Kinobe recently provided testimony at the Queensland Racing Tribunal in regard to excessive levels of cobalt found in some race horses.

“I understand the need to limit the use of cobalt in race horses, but whatever limits are set, no one can tell me 200 micrograms for sure is safe. Show me the data,” he said.

Dr Kinobe’s main findings were that it is unknown whether the limits authorities have established for the animals are safe, or actually do prevent the presumed doping effects.

Cobalt has been likened to the performance-enhancing drug erythropoietin (EPO) in humans, to aid endurance; however, the supplementation of animal diets with small quantities of cobalt for clinical conditions that affect the formation of blood components is not illegal.

Cobalt is commercially available in many different over-the-counter supplements, or as oral and injectable formulations.

“Different racing authorities are coming up with different levels, but no one knows for sure what is safe, from a scientific perspective,” he said.

Dr Kinobe’s studies show that with repeated administration, cobalt accumulates in horse tissues over time and raises concerns about whether a high reading is the result of one large dose, or many smaller doses over time.

“I’m arguing that the science around it needs to be established and what people should be doing to avoid reaching toxic levels.

“In the absence of that kind of concrete scientific evidence, I would suggest a more pragmatic approach of totally banning the use of cobalt in race horses until the science is resolved,” Dr Kinobe said.

About JCU Veterinary School

The JCU has offered the Bachelor of Veterinary Science program since 2006. Students will acquire the knowledge and skills to diagnose, treat and prevent disease in a wide range of animals including companion animals, farm animals, aquatic species and native fauna. In addition, students will acquire a thorough knowledge of animal production systems, particularly tropical animal husbandry and aquaculture.

The veterinary science program offers state-of-the-art teaching facilities in a new veterinary emergency and referral clinic on the Townsville campus and a specialist large-animal treatment facility on the tablelands, which provide clinical experience and training for final-year students.


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