Pharmacy Made Mistake in Dosage for Polo Horses

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 2009

MIAMI, April 23 -- The pharmacy that prepared a nutritional supplement given to 21 horses who collapsed and died at a polo event Sunday admitted making a mistake in the dosage of one of the ingredients, according to an official at the pharmacy in Ocala, Fla., providing a possibly significant breakthrough in the case that has stumped the polo world this week.

"On an order from a veterinarian, Franck's Pharmacy prepared medication that was used to treat the 21 horses on the Lechuza Polo team," Jennifer Beckett, the pharmacy's chief operations officer, said in the statement Thursday. "An internal investigation . . . concluded that the strength of an ingredient in the medication was incorrect."

Beckett did not specify the ingredient. Only the Lechuza polo team horses treated with the compound became sick and died, the team said in a statement released later Thursday. The horses began dying as they arrived by trailer to the International Polo Club Palm Beach for a match at the U.S. Open Polo Championships, collapsing on the lawn as veterinarians and grounds officials attempted to revive them.

"The horses that were not treated," the statement said, "remain healthy."

It is not known whether the horses received any other substances.

The compound was supposed to be the equivalent of the French-made supplement Biodyl and it was ordered by U.S. veterinarian James Belden, according to a letter from the insurance company for 12 of the horses who died. The letter was obtained by The Washington Post on Wednesday. Belden has not returned repeated calls.

Beckett said the pharmacy learned of the error after an outside lawyer led an internal investigation this week. She said a report on the findings had been turned over to investigators.

"The news reports of the pharmacy admitting to wrongly preparing the medicine before last Sunday's match is very disheartening," U.S. Polo Association Executive Director Peter Rizzo said in a statement. "We have all suffered a terrible loss."

Terrence McElroy, a state spokesman, declined to comment on the admission by Franck's Pharmacy because of the ongoing investigation.

Biodyl is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States, but it is considered common in international horse circles and not harmful in its standard form. It includes magnesium, selenium, potassium and Vitamin B12.

Several medical experts said that a supplement including those ingredients would cause death only in the case of a massive overdose of one of the ingredients, such as 100 or 1,000 times the specified amount.

Compounding pharmacies such as Franck's Pharmacy, which mix substances to fill doctors' prescriptions rather than ordering pre-made medications by the manufacturers, are popular in the horse industry. It is unclear whether filling a request for a substance that matched, or had a similar formula to, an unapproved drug would be illegal.

Lechuza also said it was cooperating with the investigation led by the State Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Though necropsies on the horses have been completed, the state officials have not released official results.

"The investigation into this tragedy, however, has just begun and it will take medical experts days if not weeks to decide decisively the cause of the deaths," Lechuza said in its statement. "A definitive diagnosis can only be made when all of the facts are known."

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