When a string of polo horses mysteriously fell ill and dropped dead at the nation's most prestigious polo event in Florida Sunday, equestrians on Long Island and beyond were horrified.
"First thing I thought was it's just a horrible thing to have happen," said Ted Oslager, manager of the Southampton Hunt and Polo Club. "You start thinking about your own horses and hope they're safe."
As many as 21 horses died in Wellington, Fla., at the U.S. Open Polo Championship, the result, some veterinarians said, of a toxin that could be in the animals' feed, vitamins or supplements.
The horses from the Venezuelan-owned team Lechuza Caracas became ill just before a tournament match and they collapsed and died on the scene or while being treated at clinics.
The deaths shocked the affluent equestrian and golfing community in central Palm Beach County, where the International Polo Club Palm Beach hosts the event.
But the horses' deaths also reverberated on Long Island, which hosts several polo clubs and horse riding activities.
"It's sad," said Amanda Leitl, fundraiser and marketing director of HorseAbility, a Huntington-based therapeutic horse-riding program for the disabled.
"Anything that causes an animal to die for unknown reasons is sad. This is so unfortunate," she added.
Florida officials hope to isolate the source of the poison.
"This was devastating. It was heartbreaking, to see that many horses get sick all at once," said John Wash, president of club operations.
Dr. Scott Swerdlin, a veterinarian at Palm Beach Equine Clinic near the polo grounds, treated one of the sick horses. He said it appeared 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 mix of all three.
"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.
The 60-horse team is owned by Venezuelan banker Victor Vargas but most of the horses and players are Argentine, Swerdlin said.
This story was supplemented with wire service reports.