WELLINGTON, Fla. - Organ by organ, veterinarians are taking apart 21 prized polo horses to uncover what killed them mysteriously over the weekend during preparations for a match in one of the sport's top championships. Simultaneously, state authorities have opened a criminal probe to determine whether the deaths were intentional, a result of negligence or simply a terrible accident.
With careful cuts to their muscular bodies, the investigators look for lesions, fluids, bruises and hemorrhages, any obvious signs of sickness. They're removing the hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys and spleens, and cutting small samples to be tested for toxins. The process unfolds much as it would for a dead person.
State officials believe the horses died from an adverse drug reaction, toxins in their food or supplements, or a combination of the two. Two days after the horses' deaths, authorities say they have not uncovered any crime but continue to investigate.
"We want to make sure from a law enforcement standpoint that there was no impropriety . . . no purposeful harm or laws violated in Florida," said Terence McElroy, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which is handling the case with help from the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office.
The horses from the Venezuelan-owned team began collapsing Sunday as they were unloaded from trailers at the International Polo Club Palm Beach, with some dying at the scene and others hours later. They were set to compete in the sport's U.S. Open tournament ahead of the finals this coming Sunday, and were seen as top contenders.
While veterinarians work with their scalpels, investigators are interviewing everyone who encountered the horses the day of the game and gathering evidence such as feed and supplements from the stables where the horses were kept.
"Should criminal activity surface, we don't want to be so far behind the eight-ball that we're playing catch-up," said sheriff's Capt. Greg Richter.
The exhaustive process included more evidence collecting yesterday at the stables used by the Lechuza Polo team, said Dr. Michael Short, the state's equine programs manager who is helping coordinate the case.
Results from toxicologies on blood and tissues could take weeks.