The use of the banned substance cobalt in harness racing horses has been on the increase not only in the United States but around the world during the last few years.
Several harness trainers in Maine got caught up in the unfortunate trend.
The Maine State Harness Racing Commission on Friday released the details of its findings in the cases of seven Maine trainers discovered to have administered cobalt to their horses. All of the violations occurred in 2015.
Steven Vafiades, Patricia Switzer, Randy Bickmore and Steven Murchison each were suspended for 450 days with fines ranging from $1,250 to $2,250. Drew Campbell received a 270-day suspension, and Allison MacDonald and Frank Hiscock each were suspended for 90 days.
“The harness racing commission in Maine just started testing for [cobalt] in 2015,” said William Varney, chairman of the Maine State Harness Racing Commission.
“The suspensions are based on how many times that they tested positive,” he added, saying that Hiscock and MacDonald were penalized after feeding horses an excess amount of a food supplement that contained cobalt.
Testing for cobalt may have been new last year, but harness racing trainers should have been aware of the rules.
“It was posted that it was illegal. They’ve known that it was illegal for quite a while,” Varney said.
He said that all of the trainers involved have been suspended, but some have appealed the ruling.
Varney, a Bangor native who owns race horses, conceded that the magnitude of the sanctions likely are unprecedented in Maine harness racing, even in an industry that for many years has worked to eliminate the administration of illegal substances to horses.
However, the situation appears to have been rectified quickly.
“We have not had a single case of cobalt in 2016 thus far,” Varney said. “The word is out that we are testing, and it is working.”
Calls to the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association seeking comment were not returned on Friday.
The violations date back to April 2015. All of the samples were drawn from horses that were racing at Scarborough Downs.
Varney said a state veterinarian is at Maine racetracks and routinely draws blood samples from race winners and often the second- and third-place horses in each race. The samples are sent to a testing laboratory at the University of Kentucky.
“By the time the tests started coming back, some of [the trainers] had three or four or five positives before they were notified about the first one,” Varney said.
A portion of each blood sample is kept by the Maine State Harness Racing Commission to help protect trainers with a backup sample in the event of a dispute.
Varney said the state also performs random testing at Maine tracks and might even test every horse in each race during a given race program. He said Maine has initiated another program this year in which horses are subjected to testing at off-track facilities.
The Maine State Harness Racing Commission began initiating proceedings against the trainers last July, but the complicated process lasted several months. The commission handed down its decisions in the cases of Campbell, Bickmore, Vafiades and Switzer on April 26. The final dispensation of the cases involving Murchison, MacDonald, Hiscock and a secondary case with Switzer were finalized on May 16.
The Maine State Harness Racing Commission determined that cobalt was a prohibited substance under a rule that reads, in part, “any substance, including, but not limited to, a narcotic, stimulant, depressant, tranquilizer, local anesthetic, analgesic, drug or drug metabolite, medication of any type or biological substance, at a level greater than the level found in the normal, untreated horse.”
It established that “cobalt at a level over 50 parts per billion is in excess of the concentration at which the substance would occur naturally.” The horses testing positive in Maine had cobalt levels ranging from 68.4 parts per billion to 1,733 parts per billion.
Maine harness racing rules rules dictate that trainers are responsible to make sure no prohibited substance is found in any horse under their care.
The Maine State Harness Racing Commission determined that the violations were Class 3 penalties, which mandate suspensions ranging from 90 days to six months for a first violation and one to three years for a third and each subsequent violation. The commission imposed the minimum punishment for the range of each count involving the seven trainers.
However, the Maine State Harness Racing Commission subsequently voted to make the use of cobalt a Class 1 penalty, which brings stiffer suspensions and fines.
In April, the New York State Gaming Commission levied unprecedented sanctions against six horse trainers who in March administered cobalt doses that were deemed potentially dangerous and performance-enhancing.
Those trainers will be suspended or have their licenses revoked entirely, and they each have been fined at least $25,000, according to a report in the Daily Racing Forum.
Three of the individuals will be banned from harness racing for 10 years.
According to thoroughbredracing.com, cobalt is a substance that occurs as part of the vitamin B12 complex and is present naturally in horses at low levels. It gained attention as a performance enhancer in horses because it stimulates the production of the hormone erythropoietin, which promotes the formation of red blood cells.
The desired result is better endurance and decreased muscle fatigue, although there are conflicting studies on the performance-enhancing qualities of cobalt in horses.
However, high doses of cobalt can have major health ramifications for horses. It can produce abnormal sweating, anxiety and trembling. A study by Dr. Mary Scollay, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission equine medical director, found that high doses of cobalt also interfere with the clotting of blood.