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Mystery ailment kills 14 horses at polo tournament

The animals collapse and die in front of a stunned U.S. Open crowd in Florida. Several others are sick.

April 20, 2009|Sharon Robb

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — At least 14 horses collapsed and died Sunday just before a match at the U.S. Open polo tournament in Wellington, Fla.

Several other horses were said to have been stricken. Two sources connected to the competition said on condition of anonymity that the number of dead could reach 30.

Veterinarians tried feverishly to save the horses, inserting intravenous tubes and fighting to help the animals breathe, while a stunned crowd at the International Polo Club Palm Beach looked on. Electric fans sprayed the horses with water mist to try to cool them down.

Workers erected curtains to screen the ailing horses from the hushed crowd.

"They started getting dizzy," polo club spokesman Tim O'Connor said. "They dropped down right onto the grass."

Dr. Scott Swerdlin, a member of the Palm Beach Equine Clinic -- International Polo's consulting veterinarian group -- was at the scene.

"Some died right away," Swerdlin said. "Others lasted about 45 minutes."

Seven horses died at the Polo Club and the rest died after leaving the property, O'Connor said. Each of the horses, all between 10 and 11 years old, was valued at about $100,000, he said.

The horses were part of the Venezuelan-based Lechuza Caracas team and had been kept at the team's complex near the polo stadium. Each polo team typically brings about 24 horses to a match. For such a prestigious competition, teams often bring more -- six to eight for each of the four players.

The horses began breathing heavily and stumbling at the Lechuza Caracas facility before they were brought to the polo club, Swerdlin said he was told. As members were preparing their horses for the match, two horses collapsed and several others seemed dizzy and disoriented.

Four of the equines died in a trailer.

"It could be the water, hay, bedding. We just don't know. When we find out what it is, we will take all the necessary actions," said John A. Walsh, polo club president.

"One minute we're waiting for everyone to start and in a good mood, and the next thing we could see seven or eight of them down," said Carlos Suarez of Fort Lauderdale, a spectator who was at the U.S. Open with his wife and two daughters. "People that knew, you could tell it in their faces. They were crying."

When the horses began getting sick and collapsing, stadium officials canceled the match.

Polo club manager Jimmy Newman was left looking for answers.

"They had a reaction to something. We don't know what," Newman said.

Necropsies will be conducted by state veterinarian Dr. Mike Scott to determine the cause of death. Preliminary findings are expected late today or Tuesday.

A full-scale investigation by the U.S. Polo Assn., the sport's governing body, is expected to begin today.

The U.S. Open is the oldest and most prestigious polo tournament in the United States. Teams often bring their most expensive horses.

One or two horses met a similar fate in Ocala, Fla., within the last two years, said Dean Turney, executive director of the Wellington Equestrian Alliance. In that case, Turney said, the horses' sickness was linked to contaminated feed.

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srobb@sun-sentinel.com

South Florida Sun-Sentinel staff writer Marc Freeman contributed to this report, which was supplemented by information from the Palm Beach Post.

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