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Sudden Deaths of Seemingly Healthy Polo Horses Remain Unsolved in Florida

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By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009

WELLINGTON, Fla., April 22 -- The first horse dropped to its knees inside the trailer as the caravan carrying more than $1 million worth of thoroughbreds made its way through neatly landscaped boulevards to International Polo Club Palm Beach.

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Trainers riding in the front cab watched in horror as the sleek, muscular gray mare named Shakira fell, her head disappearing from their field of vision. By the time they tore open the trailer's doors moments later, the horse was already dead.

Other horses in the caravan shuddered, bobbed and stumbled with disorientation. They toppled over, one by one, falling onto the closely trimmed grass of the polo club lawn.

It was approaching 2 p.m. Sunday. Within hours, 21 prized horses from the polo team Lechuza Caracas would collapse and die as panicked veterinarians, trainers and staff tried to save them.

"Send everybody," one on-site vet said by phone to Kathleen Timmins-Gobin, a local veterinarian, shortly after the team arrived. Within minutes, more than a dozen vets had hurried to the polo grounds, most attired in silk shirts and fine leather shoes because they had planned to attend the U.S. Open Polo Championship, one of the most prestigious events on the U.S. polo calendar, as spectators.

Instead, they worked feverishly behind hastily erected blue screens, getting splattered with blood as they jammed eight- and 14-inch catheters into initially unwilling horses, then unresponsive ones, while trying to cool them with ice and water. Ladies in wide-brimmed hats and linen dresses and men in pressed shirts and pants sensed something was amiss and gathered to watch. Some were in tears.

"I used the F-word about 2,000 times," said Scott Swerdlin, one of the first veterinarians to arrive from the Palm Beach Equine Clinic. "They kept getting worse and worse and worse. I've never had 12 vets treating 12 horses and unable to do one thing. We were totally helpless.

"You're just sitting there saying, 'We're going to lose every one of these horses. What the hell is going on?' "

Three days later, as the state of Florida continues the medical and criminal investigation it opened Monday and bouquets of flowers pile up outside the iron gates of the Lechuza Caracas ranch that was home to the horses, that question is still being asked by a close-knit polo community shaken to the core.

The sudden, unexplained deaths of 21 horses seemingly in the prime of their health is unprecedented.

"I've never seen anything like that," Timmins-Gobin said. "They were so severely compromised that routine types of critical care did not seem to do much good. . . . It was one at a time -- bam, bam, bam, down the row."

Florida state officials ruled out sickness or infectious disease because the horses shared food, water and lodging with other horses that did not become ill. Fourteen of the horses died on the field. Five died at local stables. The last one died at the Palm Beach Equine Clinic eight hours after Shakira's passing. Just two brought to the polo grounds survived, according to officials involved in the case.


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