A state court is giving a reprieve to three Maine harness horsemen who had been suspended and fined by state regulators over horse doping allegations.
In all, the Harness Racing Commission suspended the licenses of seven trainers in Maine for as long as 15 months for administering a substance called cobalt to horses. Their blood was tested after they won races last year.
Cobalt is a trace element that can stimulate production of red blood cells and blood-oxygen levels in some animals, but whose role in horse racing is in dispute.
Three of the trainers appealed to Superior Court, and late last week Cumberland County Judge Lance Walker stayed the suspensions pending a full trial. Walker cited a lack of scientific evidence or consensus about cobalt’s effects on horse performance.
And Bill Childs, a lawyer for two of the trainers, says the judge also cited potential problems with the commission’s rules and notice procedures.
“When these cases were prosecuted, there was no rule in effect,” he says. “They took the later adopted rule and tried to retroactively apply it.”
Childs says that when trainers Randy Bickmore and Drew Campbell administered cobalt to their horses, they did not actually know whether the substance could enhance a horse’s chance to get to the finish line first. They only knew that it’s a component of vitamin B and might work like some similar human performance enhancers.
“They were unsure. We think it benefits the horse. It makes for a better coat on the horse. Vitamin B12 and vitamin B6, both those vitamins have been known to enrich the blood or make a person feel better or make an animal feel better,” Childs says.
He says that once the trainers were notified that state regulators considered cobalt to be banned above certain levels, they stopped administering it, and there have been no positive cobalt tests in Maine horses since then.
Information collected by a national track veterinarian group called the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium does indicate that in large doses, cobalt can harm equine health, causing profuse sweating and gastrointestinal spasms. And trainers have been penalized in other racing jurisdictions for using cobalt.
The chairman of Maine’s Harness Racing Commission, William Varney, says there’s a lot at stake in horse doping cases.
“The integrity of racing, the fairness to the other people racing in those areas. And it’s also for the health of the horse,” he says.
Varney says the commission is trying to sharpen its oversight of potential horse doping. At its meeting last week the commission authorized staff to begin the process of revising its rules with an eye to making them more transparent, and more effective.
The three trainers who challenged their suspensions could be back at the track by Thursday.