Cheltenham Festival non-runner first to test positive for cobalt in Britain
The first case of a horse testing positive for cobalt in Britain and Ireland was confirmed on Wednesday when the BHA disclosed that the notorious performance-enhancer was at the centre of the decision to prevent prolific point-to-point winner Anseanachai Cliste from running at the Cheltenham Festival this year.
The presence of the substance that has been the scourge of racing in Australia emerged when charges were issued against father and son Stephen and Michael McConville after an investigation triggered by the discovery of a blood-covered syringe at the racecourse in March when Anseanachai Cliste was due to contest the Foxhunter Chase.
The McConvilles, from Portadown, County Armagh, will appear before a disciplinary panel in London on September 19, where Stephen McConville said he looked forward to the conclusion of "this unfortunate occurrence".
In a statement, he said: "Both myself and my son, Michael, have been notified by the British Horseracing Authority that a hearing will take place on September 19 regarding the incident at the Cheltenham Festival and our horse, Anseanachai Cliste, which prevented him contesting the Foxhunter.
"We have co-operated with the BHA and their team, detailing with the issue, and will continue to do so. We look forward to the conclusion of this unfortunate occurrence and will fully assist the disciplinary panel of the British Horseracing Authority with their hearing, answer any outstanding questions and accept their decision on the matter."
This is the first instance of a horse testing positive for levels of cobalt in excess of permitted raceday thresholds in Britain or Ireland since they were adopted by the BHA, and many other racing jurisdictions, in April 2016.
By then racing in Australia had been hit by a spate of cobalt positives that resulted in a number of trainers receiving suspensions. The most high profile was Black Caviar's trainer Peter Moody who was banned for six months, after which he quit training.
Among the most serious involved Danny O'Brien, who was suspended for four years, and Mark Kavanagh, suspended for three. They were subsequently cleared at an appeal that pinned the blame on their vet, a decision Racing Victoria has challenged.
There have been cases in Dubai too, most involving Arab horses, but the BHA said it has seen no evidence of widespread cobalt use in Britain.
A spokesman said: "We have the data from both research surveys and regulatory analysis carried out in recent years which show no evidence that there is a culture of cobalt abuse in British racing. However, if cobalt was being used inappropriately, we are confident this would be identified through our anti-doping strategy.”
The McConvilles face nine charges between them. The horse's owner Michael McConvillle, referred to as the "responsible person" faces five, and Stephen McConville, a restricted licence trainer, four.
These disclose Anseanachai Cliste was also administered anti-inflammatory agent Adrenal Cortex, which is not licensed for use in horses in the UK.
The inquiry will seek to establish whether the McConvilles were involved in the administration of the substance, which was found in their possession, and whether they were guilty of misleading or trying to mislead raceday officials.
They are also charged with violating anti-doping rules and failing to act in the best interests of the horse's health and welfare.
Anseanachai Cliste had won eight point-to-points in a row and was a 33-1 chance for the Foxhunter when he was withdrawn from the race in mysterious circumstances on the order of the stewards, who were not satisfied the horse had been administered only normal feed and water.
At the time the BHA's chief regulatory officer Jamie Stier said: "In my experience of seven years it's the first time a horse has been withdrawn in these circumstances."
Despite the incident Anseanachai Cliste was allowed to continue racing and won the Ulster National nine days after his festival absence. The positive test for cobalt had not been established before that victory but samples were taken at Downpatrick which the Turf Club have said returned negative.
Anseanachai Cliste has run twice since his last win, at Kelso and Downpatrick, failing to make the frame on either occasion.
Shortcomings in the Turf Club's testing facilities were revealed by the Racing Post last autumn, but the regulator said in April it had been using a foreign laboratory to test for excessive levels of cobalt and other substances that previously were not detectable by the old regime.
What is cobalt?
Cobalt is an essential mineral required by all mammals, including horses. A normal horse diet contains sufficient cobalt to meet these requirements.
However, inorganic cobalt salts have the potential to activate the erythropoietin (EPO) gene, which increases production of red blood cells. The presence of cobalt in horses above a threshold level is therefore prohibited.
Adrenal Cortex, the other substance involved in the charges, is described by manufacturers as a potent anti-inflammatory agent which provided “some analgesia and a bit of euphoria to the horse”.
The recommended entry point for a guilty verdict for a prohibited substance is a two-year disqualification, with the range set between one and ten years.
Anseanachai Cliste case timeline
March 17 Anseanachai Cliste, a 33-1 chance, is ordered to be withdrawn from the St James's Place Foxhunter Chase on Cheltenham Gold Cup day because the stewards could not be satisfied that the horse had been administered only normal feed and water on raceday.
March 18 The BHA launch an investigation into the incident
March 26 Anseanachai Cliste wins the Ulster National at Downpatrick
May 28 The horse is a beaten favourite at Kelso, finishing sixth of eight
June 18 Anseanachai Cliste runs back at Downpatrick and again misses the frame
July 3 The Racing Post report an announcement from the BHA is imminent regarding the case after tests believed to have revealed the presence of prohibited substances
September 6 Michael and Stephen McConville, owner and trainer respectively, are charged by the BHA
If you were interested in this you should also read: