Prompted by the deaths of two horses after injuries in a polo match last month and the rumored deaths of other horses, the Department of Animal Regulation on Tuesday shut down the glitzy indoor arena polo games at the debt-ridden Los Angeles Equestrian Center.
Officials of the city department said the management of the center in Griffith Park has illegally held the polo contests in the 3,500-seat Equidome without having a permit for the matches or other shows, such as rodeos. They said an investigation is under way to determine whether center officials had also violated state humane laws in the treatment of horses.
Polo matches have been played with the knowledge and blessing of the city Recreation and Parks Department, which has allowed such contests at the center since 1983. Officials of that department said they were not aware that the center's management did not have the proper permits.
"We've got a lot of questions about what's going on out there, and until we answer them, they can no longer have arena polo at the center," said Michael Burns, district supervisor for the Animal Regulation Department.
He said it could be up to a year before the center can obtain a permit to hold any horse-related shows.
The move could mean the end of the 11-game polo season at the center and the glamour that surrounds the events.
Celebrities such as actors William Shatner, William Devane and Mickey Dolenz and singer Juice Newton frequent the matches as well as play polo. One official said the matches are attended by the "Cadillac and champagne" set that dine on cracked crab and calamari cocktail during the action.
Two thoroughbred polo ponies had to be destroyed when they broke legs during the first minutes of a March 11 match, officials said. Burns said he had also heard accounts of two other horses being killed at the center in the past but said he had not confirmed the incidents.
Horse boarders at the center, which is on property owned by the city of Los Angeles, have also complained to officials about horses with large open sores being ridden during the games.
Officials at Gibraltar Savings of Beverly Hills, which operates the center, called the department's action toward polo "outrageous."
Dean Harrison, general counsel for Gibraltar, said city officials had not notified Gibraltar of the shutdown and had failed to return phone calls.
"This is an outrageous procedural thing by the city," he said. "This is uncalled for. We welcome an inspection. We also note that this kind of accident occurs frequently in race tracks around the country. The city has accused us of intentionally harming animals, and we deny that."
Harrison said the revenues from the polo matches were important to the center, which is more than $2 million in debt and is losing $80,000 to $100,000 a month.
"This will hurt us, but hopefully not fatally," he said. "The season accounts for between 8% to 10% of our yearly revenue.
"But without the matches, the public begins to lose interest, and they wonder about the financial viability of the place. It has a domino effect."
Burns said he did not feel that the center deliberately failed to get the proper permits. He said recreation and parks officials and center management were probably unaware that the documents are required.
Polo--a team game in which riders attempt to shoot a ball through goals with a mallet--involves a significant amount of pushing and bumping of horses, which is all legal, unless a rider "bumps" off an opponent at an angle greater than 45 degrees.
"We do know that horses have died doing this. But we don't know if it's an unsafe event unless we can see how they are cared for," Burns said. "We have to make sure they're in good shape. You can't send a horse into these events without them being in good shape."
Burns said he would have a veterinarian inspect the horses for old and new injuries. He said he wanted center officials to provide him with records of horses that have been injured or killed during the polo matches.