Polo Horses' Death Came From Incorrectly Mixed Supplement

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

MIAMI, April 28 -- The 21 polo horses that mysteriously collapsed and died last week likely perished from an overdose of selenium in an incorrectly mixed vitamin supplement, according to information released by Florida state investigators and the Ocala, Fla.-based pharmacy that produced the supplement.

Florida state officials announced Tuesday afternoon that toxicology reports showed fatal amounts of selenium in all of the dead animals, but declined to discuss any links to the pharmacy -- which last week admitted providing the horses with a supplement containing an incorrect dose of one ingredient -- citing the ongoing investigation. Selenium is necessary for human cell function in trace amounts but is toxic in very large doses.

But later in the afternoon, Franck's Pharmacy Chief Operations Officer Jennifer Beckett said in an e-mail statement that, "in light of today's statement from Florida State Veterinarian Thomas J. Holt, we can confirm the ingredient was selenium." Beckett declined further comment.

Terrence McElroy, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said the selenium overdose was the "likely cause" of the deaths of the horses, who began collapsing as they were shuttled from a barn in Wellington, Fla., to an April 19 polo match at the prestigious U.S. polo championships.

Most of the animals died within three hours of ingesting the supplement, according to a statement released last week by the Venezuelan polo team that owned them, Lechuza Caracas.

McElroy did not specify how much selenium the horses received, but said the toxicology reports showed "there was way too much of that ingredient."

The supplement was supposed to replicate a popular equine product called Biodyl, which is manufactured in France and not approved for use in the United States, according to Lechuza Caracas. Biodyl contains selenium, magnesium, Vitamin B and potassium, and is considered safe in its manufactured form, according to several veterinarians.

The compound equivalent of the supplement was ordered by veterinarian James Belden, who has not returned calls for comment.

Peter Rizzo, the executive director of the U.S. Polo Association, called the horses' death a "tragic accident" in a release. Rizzo noted that the organization formed a special committee last weekend to examine additional safety measures and regulations to protect polo horses.

"The USPA is 100 percent committed to preventing a tragedy of this nature from happening in the future," Rizzo said.

Franck's Pharmacy is known as a compounding pharmacy, a store that mixes medicines rather than providing manufactured versions. It is unclear whether the pharmacy will face charges for attempting to prepare a supplement not approved for use in the United States.

It is also not clear whether the order for the supplement was incorrect, or whether the pharmacy made a mistake in measuring out the selenium.

"This simply answers the question, 'What did the animals die of?' " McElroy said. "The broader question is, 'How did that come about?' "

McElroy said investigators would continue interviews in a case that has captivated and saddened the polo community since the horses' deaths.

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