Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Polo horse.

Image: orphaned, contact me for proper attribution [larger view].

By now, most of you have heard the tragic story of the twenty-one polo horses that died suddenly within a few hours of each other in Wellington, Palm Beach County, Florida. These horses, which comprised more than one-third of the 60-horse Venezuelan polo team, Lechuza Caracas, were scheduled to compete in the featured game in the 105th U.S. Open polo match on Sunday afternoon. Upon arriving on the grounds shortly before the game was to begin, several horses appeared dizzy and disoriented. They staggered off the vans and died on the lawn in front of hundreds of spectators, while others died later in the club stables.

Veterinarians and grooms treated the fallen horses immediately by spraying them with water to cool them and administering intravenous fluids. Tragically, all horses that showed signs of illness died.

“The players, the owners of the horses were in tears. Bystanders and volunteers were in tears. I mean, this was a very tragic thing,” said Tony Coppola, announcer for the International Polo Club Palm Beach.

Large blue tarps were erected to block the drama from the crowd’s eyes. The featured match was canceled and an exhibition game was played instead, while rumors flew and yet more horses died.

Due to the sudden onset of symptoms and rapid progression to death, it was speculated that the horses died from heart failure after exposure to a toxin or suffering an adverse drug reaction.

“The suspicion here is toxins because of how sudden[ly] these animals died,” said John Harvey, assistant dean of the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “But since we don’t know what we’re looking for, there are literally thousands of things we can test for.”

Early speculation focused on the possibility of toxic shock, which would explain the horses symptoms; dizziness, water in the lungs and cardiac arrest. It was reported today that evidence of hemorrhaging was found throughout various organs, but offered no specific clues.

“Clearly it’s an intoxication,” said Club Veterinarian James Belden, who tended the dying horses. “There’s some sort of a poison [involved].”

The bodies of the horses are currently undergoing necropsy and toxicology testing. Some of the bodies were taken to the Florida Department of Agriculture lab in Kissimmee while others were taken to the University of Florida’s Veterinary School in Gainesville for necropsies. Necropsy results will be released by Wednesday, but final toxicology results on the dead horse’s blood and tissues will not be available for several weeks.

“We’re at a standstill until we get those back,” said Sheriff’s Office Captain Greg Richter. “We have ruled out that it’s a virus or infection [so] it’s probably some sort of toxin or pathogen.”

Two toxicology tests are being conducted by the Florida Racing Laboratory. One of the tests identifies the class of any drugs that might be present while a second analysis can identify specific drugs.

At this time, the investigation is “not a full-blown criminal investigation” but instead, is an attempt “to determine if any laws were broken, whether any illegal substances were given to animals,” stated Department of Agriculture spokesman Terence McElroy.

“There is a fair amount of speculation and misinformation out there right now,” said Dr. Richard Sams, program director at the Florida Racing Laboratory, noting that preliminary results should be available by the end of the week. “We need to do the testing and the right kind of investigating.”

Polo horses are often given IVs of performance-enhancing fluid cocktails before matches, so it is suspected this might have been the source of the toxin. However, it is not known if the poisoning was deliberate.

“It’s a suspicious incident when that many horses die at once,” Captain Richter pointed out. “[But] we don’t have any suspects or anything like that.”

State authorities have launched a criminal investigation to determine whether the deaths were intentional, a result of negligence or simply a terrible accident.

“Should criminal activity surface, we don’t want to be so far behind the eight-ball that we’re playing catch-up,” Captain Richter added.

None of the other teams’ horses were affected, but more than one-third of the Venezuelan team’s horses died: fourteen died on Sunday, and an additional seven died overnight. The horses, valued between $100,000 and $286,000 each, were owned by the multimillionaire president of the Venezuelan Banking Association, Victor Vargas. Eight of the dead horses were insured. Vargas, who is the captain of the team, was present and comforted several of the horses or held their heads in his arms as they lay dying.

Veterinary technician Ginny Powell administers care to a dying horse
at the International Polo Club Palm Beach.

Image: Brandon Kruse.

Not only were these the team’s best horses, trained for years to achieve a very high standard of performance and in the prime of their lives, but their loss has seriously affected the future of team Lechuza Caracas. A team of such horses could take 10 years to rebuild.

“These were some of the best horses in the world,” said Scott Swerdlin, a veterinarian with the Palm Beach Equine Clinic.

Several of the dead horses were mares that would have produced the next generation of polo horses.

“We all mourn the loss of these horses,” said Peter Rizzo, executive director of the United States Polo Association. “There are no words to describe the grief and sadness shared by everyone — particularly the devastated owners of those magnificent horses.”

“I’ve heard a couple of polo players who were affected with this loss the other day, a couple of them I don’t think have left their house since Sunday night,” said John Wash, operations president for the Polo Club. “There were a lot of tears there — these big, tough guys just on their hands and knees, crying over what happened.”

Never in the history of polo has there has been such a tremendous loss of horses in such a short period of time.

“This was a tragic issue on the magnitude of losing a basketball team in an airplane crash,” said Walsh.

Neither the owner, Vargas, nor the Venezuelan team has not been seen in public since the tragedy, and in fact, it is not clear if they are still in the country. But they did release a statement late Monday.

“This is tragic news. We are deeply concerned about the death of our ponies,” the statement read. “We have never encountered such a dire situation like this as our horses receive the most professional and dedicated care possible.”

Rival teams offered spare horses to the distraught Lechuza Caracas team so they could compete, but they withdrew from the championship. The U.S. Open polo match is described as the “World Cup” of polo and the Venezuelan team was favored to win.

The games will resume on Thursday after a moment of silence and a wreath laying ceremony, and the final matches are scheduled for Sunday.


Veterinary News.

The Guardian.

CNN News.


  1. #1 cfrost
    April 22, 2009

    Dreadful. I do hope that this is the result of some sort of awful mistake and that there’s nothing criminal going on.

  2. #2 Gini
    April 22, 2009

    How terribly sad! My heart goes out to the obviously stricken players, and those poor horses.

  3. #3 Colleen McSweeney
    April 24, 2009

    This is a very sad and my thoughts and prayer are with the family.

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