Florida Investigating Deaths of 21 Horses

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

MIAMI, April 20 -- Florida state officials launched a medical and law enforcement investigation Monday into the mysterious deaths of 21 horses from the same polo team that fell ill shortly before an afternoon match Sunday and perished within hours of one another. One official said the cause of the horses' deaths appeared to be an "adverse drug reaction or toxicity" rather than illness.

The horses from the Venezuela-based Lechuza Caracas team shared food, water and stables with other horses near the polo grounds in Wellington, Fla., that were not stricken, suggesting that the cause was not an infectious disease, according to Terence McElroy, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

"We're looking into all aspects of this," McElroy said Monday. "These animals died as a result of exposure to some type of toxin or poison of some type or another. . . . We want to find out how that came about."

Though thoroughbred racing recently has tightened its anti-doping rules, drug-testing is not common in polo and there was no testing at the Wellington event, according to Tim O'Connor, a spokesman for Wellington's International Polo Club Palm Beach. The horses' deaths left the polo and equine community reeling.

"I don't recall anything like this happening in the 30 years I've been here," said John Harvey, the executive associate dean of the college of veterinary medicine at the University of Florida.

"This is a disaster of the first order," said Don Catlin, chairman of the Equine Drug Research Institute's Scientific Advisory Committee. "These are marvelous animals, just wonderful creatures. To see a whole team of horses wiped out is a catastrophe."

Fifteen of the cadavers were sent to the University of Florida Veterinary School for necropsies and toxicology testing. The other six were transported to a Department of Agriculture lab in Kissimmee, Fla.

McElroy and lab experts said results would take several days or possibly weeks.

When the horses arrived at the polo grounds to compete in the 105th U.S. Open Polo Championships on Sunday, some were already dead and the remaining had trouble breathing and walking and seemed depressed, according to a statement by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. At least 15 veterinarians treated the horses through the night, O'Connor said, but 14 horses died by Sunday evening and seven died early Monday.

Sunday's polo match was canceled and Lechuza Caracas withdrew from the championships, which will resume with the semifinal round Wednesday.

Owned by Venezuelan financier Victor Vargas, the Lechuza Caracas team had competed in the U.S. Open since 1999 and won the recent U.S. Polo Association Gold Cup, a prestigious event. O'Connor said Vargas owns at least 100 horses that he keeps in Wellington stables throughout the winter. Vargas, who competes on the Lechuza Caracas team, was with many of his horses when they died, O'Connor said.

"Their entire team, including [Vargas], worked feverishly with the vets," O'Connor said. "They literally were speechless. It's like losing your mother or father."

Vargas owns various banks and oil properties in the United States, Venezuela, Panama and the Dominican Republic, according to biographical information from the North American Polo League.

It takes years for horses to become accomplished at polo and most that compete in events such as the U.S. Open are at least 9 years old, O'Connor said. Top polo horses cost more than $100,000.

"We all mourn the loss of these horses," U.S. Polo Association Executive Director Peter Rizzo said in a statement. "There are no words to describe the grief and sadness shared by everyone."

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