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.
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.
A number of officials said foul play seemed unlikely because the horses were under tight security at the fortress-like Lechuza Caracas ranch, which houses dozens of horses throughout the winter, is surrounded by a 10-foot hedge and fence and is accessible only through three sets of electronically operated iron gates.
Because there is no drug testing in polo, there has been speculation that the horses could have been doped. The strange circumstances surrounding the horses' deaths suggest an extremely powerful substance or an enormous mistake, several doctors said.
"We knew the horses were given something," Swerdlin said. "This was definitively an overdose. What it was, I have no idea. And what's worse is that probably the labs in Kissimmee and the University of Florida have no idea."
The horses received the vitamin supplement Biodyl, which was blended by an Ocala-based pharmacy, according to a letter from attorneys for the company that insured some of the horses, a copy of which The Washington Post obtained. According to the letter, the Biodyl was ordered from the pharmacy by the team's U.S. veterinarian, James Belden.
Several local veterinarians, however, speculated that even an overdose of Biodyl, which contains magnesium and other minerals and is commonly administered to show-jumping horses, would not cause such rapid deaths to so many horses. And if a compounding mistake were made, it would have had to have been dramatic, they said.
Before the caravan set off from the ranch for the short drive to the polo grounds Sunday, a horse was left behind after suffering from diarrhea and having thick green mucous seeping from his eyes and nose.
As the horses lay on the grass at the polo ground, a pickup truck full of intravenous devices, pharmaceutical products and IV bags from the Palm Beach Equine Clinic arrived with reinforcements.
The horses showed odd symptoms of distress. They had high blood pressure upon arrival, but as they fell their blood pressure plummeted. As they weakened, they showed heart rates of just 40 beats per minute, instead of the elevated rates of 100 beats or more that would be expected for animals in shock. As the minutes passed, several doctors said, the horses' hearts continued to beat, yet they showed signs of oxygen deficiency, suggesting their hearts weren't pumping vigorously enough.
The horses also went blind. When the vets touched the surfaces of their opened eyes to gauge their responses, they did not blink.
"If it turns out that a performance-enhancing drug was given the day of the game, then I would hope for polo's sake that the U.S. Polo Association takes a leadership role and institutes drug testing," Swerdlin said.
Venezuelan mogul Victor Vargas owned 12 of the horses, and all competed for his team, for which he is a polo player. The horses ranged in age from 6 to 13 years old and had names such as Nina, Can Can, Princessa and Teletubi. Three other men owned nine of the horses.
Vargas attended to his horses at the scene, according to Tim O'Connor, a spokesman for the club. Timmons-Gobin said queries to Vargas and his team of trainers about what the horses might have taken either went unanswered or, possibly because of a language barrier, were not understood.
"It raises a lot of questions," O'Connor said. "We have only been able to take the position, let's turn this over to the scientists and veterinarians and let them do their work. We don't want to speculate because we weren't involved in training or breeding these horses."
Several calls made to Belden, the team veterinarian, were not returned, and no one answered the door at his ranch office Wednesday afternoon. Several local veterinarians and trainers said the team also relied on Argentina's Felipe Crespo for veterinarian services.
Terrence McElroy, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, declined to comment on whether the labs were examining Biodyl or any other substance. But he said the necropsies -- horse autopsies -- were completed late Tuesday with no conclusive findings, and that more extensive blood and tissue work had begun.
Several medical experts said that, without knowing precisely what to test for, researchers likely would have a difficult time identifying the lethal agent.
"There are literally thousands of tests one might do," said John Harvey, executive associate dean of the college of veterinary medicine at the University of Florida, where 15 of the cadavers were sent.
As the investigation continues, the matches will go on. After the semifinals Thursday, a memorial service for the fallen horses will be held on the polo grounds, club president John Wash said.
"I think everybody is in a state of shock," Wash said. "There are a lot of questions being asked out there, a lot of people offering opinions. There's been tears and sadness to feelings of anger -- the whole gamut of emotions."