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Polo horse deaths shake equine world

Local officials at this week's Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event and next year's World Equestrian Games expressed horror and sadness over the deaths of 21 polo ponies Sunday in Wellington, Fla. But neither thought there was a need to change established security practices.

The sudden deaths might have been caused by a toxin in the animals' feed, vitamins or supplements, veterinarians said Monday.

The horses from the Venezuelan-owned team Lechuza Polo became ill just before a tournament match Sunday, collapsing and dying on the scene or while being treated at vet clinics or being transported, officials said.

The deaths shocked people in the equestrian and golfing circles in central Palm Beach County, where the International Polo Club Palm Beach hosts the U.S. Open Polo Championship every year.

Peter Rizzo, executive director of the Lexington-based U.S. Polo Association, was in Florida at the open when the animals became ill. He said the investigation began on the spot.

What is known, he said, is that the toxic agent wasn't infectious, because no other horses on the scene have become ill or have shown signs of sickness.

Dr. Scott Swerdlin, a veterinarian at Palm Beach Equine Clinic near the polo grounds, treated one of the sick horses. He said it appeared that the animals died of heart failure caused by some kind of toxin that could have been in tainted food, vitamins or supplements, or by some combination of all three that caused a toxic reaction.

"A combination of something with an error in something that was given to these horses caused this toxic reaction," Swerdlin told reporters.

Toxicology tests were pending Monday.

Dr. Rob Boswell, a Wellington equine veterinarian, said the thinking is "wait and see. We are all scratching our heads. It has to be something they ingested. We don't want to support any rumor. What we do believe is that we will have an answer when the toxicology and the necropsies are done with. I am as sure as I can be about that. That should be within 48 to 72 hours."

By that time, the horses set to compete in the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, April 23-26, will be stabled at the Kentucky Horse Park. Tensions shouldn't be too high, event director Jane Atkinson said.

"We've had good security restrictions in place for 30 years," she said. "The stabling should be very secure. Access should be limited to those with wristbands. Active security personnel are there 24 hours a day. It would be hard to increase it any more than we have."

Atkinson said she admonishes the competitors who want to expand access to the barns. "This is not a party barn. Leave your horses alone. They need the sleep."

John Long, chairman of the board of the World Equestrian Games and chief executive of the United States Equestrian Federation, was equally distressed by the news coming out of Florida. He said, however, that the USEF and the FEI (the world organization that will run the world games) has strict security measures.

"The stabling area is not and will not be open to the public. There's a good chance I won't be able to get in there," he said.

He said he is certain that the FEI measures are unrivaled in the world, much better, he said, "than you see in horse racing."

The International Polo Club said in a statement that polo horses are thoroughbreds who often get used in play into their mid-teens and are frequently rotated during a match.

Swerdlin also said the Lechuza team was considered among the best of the eight teams entered in the 105th U.S. Open, which started April 3 and is slated to end with a final match Sunday.

"They were the team to beat," he said. "They have some of the greatest polo players in the world."

The Lechuza Polo horses were being unloaded from their trailers Sunday afternoon when two collapsed and others acted dizzy and disoriented, according to the International Polo Club Palm Beach. Seven horses died at the scene and the rest while being treated elsewhere or en route to medical care. All the horses that fell ill have died.

Veterinarians already at the event quickly tried treating the horses, inserting intravenous lines and trying to cool them down with fans and water. Observers hung blue tarps to shield some of the horses from the crowd's view.

Officials said they have ruled out any sort of airborne infections, and games would resume on Wednesday.

"This was an isolated incident involving that one team," Wash said.

The match Sunday was postponed and an exhibition game with a substitute team was held in its place.