21 prized polo ponies die at Palm Beach
Source: Associated Press
April 21, 2009
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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.
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
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
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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