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Mysterious death of 21 polo horses probed

WELLINGTON - Scientists and veterinarians are testing samples of food, vitamins, supplements and hay to see what killed 21 polo horses in Wellington during the last 24 hours.

Meanwhile, the ponies' corpses have been divided up for necropsies with 15 going to the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville and the rest going to a state laboratory in Kissimmee. Though identifying a possible cause of death could be days away, state officials are trying to reassure other horse owners that the ailment is unlikely to be contagious or airborne.

"Our vets determined that there is not a great likelihood that there is some sort of infectious disease," said Terence McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The horses arrived at the polo field about 2 p.m. Sunday. Less than an hour later they fell ill and Dr. Scott Swerdlin, a veterinarian with the Palm Beach Equine Club, was summoned. More than a dozen local vets and vet technicians dropped everything and came to the field. They administered intensive therapy, including IV lines and fluids and treated the horses for shock. The animals showed signs of pulmonary edema, which means fluid accumulated in their lungs, and cardiogenic shock, Swerdlin said.

"There was no pain, they were just disoriented," Swerdlin said.

Each of the ponies, all between 10 and 11 years old, was valued at about $100,000, polo club spokesman Tim O'Connor said.

Twelve or 13 horses died on the field and another was later euthanized at Swerdlin's Wellington clinic. The others died at Lechuza Caracas' barn, which has about 85 horses there.

Sarah Carey, a spokeswoman for the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, said the school has received 15 of the horses and will perform necropsies on eight of them. She said the other seven aren't insured and horse owners can only recoup insurance if necropsies are performed.

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

The deaths have fueled speculation in Wellington, a village well-known for being extremely horse-friendly. Though there have been numerous reports of mass horse deaths, few have felled so many of the animals so quickly.

Equestrian enthusiasts and officials were quick to dismiss the possibility that the horses could have been poisoned by someone. Swerdlin said there was "zero possibility" of foul play.

He believes the likely culprits are food or shots. There are regulations against doping, but vitamins and IV fluids are permitted.

"You're not going to make a horse faster by something you give," he said.

It would take at least 10 years to rebuild a barn of the Lechuza Caracas' caliber, he said: "These were some of the best horses in the world."

Though the polo tournament will continue on Wednesday, Lechuza Caracas has pulled out, said John Wash, president of club operations for the International Polo Club Palm Beach. Other teams had offered to provide the mourning team with horses, but they declined.

Wash said everyone is concerned about the effect the incident will have on polo.

"It won't just be the polo scene in Wellington," Wash said. "I think it will affect the polo scene worldwide."

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