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21 prized polo ponies die at Palm Beach

Source: Associated Press
April 21, 2009

Click Here for Update on 23 Apr 09: Supplement given to polo horses incorrectly made

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 Tuesday 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.

The investigation hinges on a combination of interviews with players and groomers, tests of feed and a history of the horses’ training regimens, Short said. Information gathered there and during the necropsies will help investigators refine their approach to the toxicologies.

And while the necropsies could yield important clues when they’re finished, possibly by Wednesday, Short expects that testing blood and tissue for toxins will be more important in pinpointing a cause of death. But results from toxicologies could take weeks.

“In these cases, because we’re suspecting that this is most likely some type of toxin or poison, we may not see anything definitive” in the necropsies, Short said.

The team’s owner, prominent Venezuelan banker Victor Vargas, has not spoken publicly since the deaths. In fact, it’s unclear if Vargas, president of the Venezuelan Banking Association, or the team are still in Florida. Authorities would not say.

The team issued a statement Monday night that it does not know the cause of deaths, but is helping with the investigation.
 

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