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Mysterious illness claims 21 polo horses at U.S. Open Polo Championship tournament

April 20, 2009 |  1:57 pm

Venezuela's polo team, Lechuza Caracas, is reeling today after a mysterious illness claimed the lives of 21 of its horses at the U.S. Open Polo Championship tournament in Wellington, Fla. 

The team was scheduled to play a 3 p.m. match; two horses collapsed and others began to seem dizzy and disoriented about 45 minutes before the match was to begin.  Vets worked to save the fallen horses, administering intravenous fluids and trying to aid their breathing while bystanders sprayed water mist over them to help cool them.

But their efforts proved futile.  Fourteen of the horses died Sunday; another seven have died since, according to Dr. Scott Swerdlin of the Palm Beach Equine Club, a consulting veterinarian for the event.  "Some died right away," Swerdlin told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "Others lasted about 45 minutes."  From the Sun-Sentinel:

[Swerdlin] believes the likely culprits are food or shots. There are regulations against doping, but vitamins and IV fluids are permitted. Swerdlin said the idea that the deaths were intentional was "very far-fetched."

Samples of every possible substance have been sent to the state-run Kissimmee Diagnostic Lab and the University of Florida School of Veterinary Medicine, he said.

The horses suffered pulmonary edema, which means fluid accumulated in their lungs, and cardiogenic shock, Swerdlin said. They had elevated temperatures and were disoriented but felt no pain.

John Wash, president of club operations for the International Polo Club Palm Beach, said the polo teams were told by veterinary officials that whatever killed the horses wasn't airborne or contagious. He said that other teams offered to let Lechuza Caracas use their extra horses in the tournament, but the team declined. The tournament will resume Wednesday.

Florida Department of Agriculture spokesman Terry McElroy said the results of necropsies conducted on the horses may not be available for a week or more.  Samples of food, vitamins, supplements and hay are also being tested for the presence of toxins that could have caused the horses' deaths.

The horses were reportedly all 10 or 11 years old and valued at about $100,000 each. The Lechuza Caracas team is owned by Victor Vargas, a Venezuelan multimillionaire and polo enthusiast, the Palm Beach Post reports.  Lechuza Caracas, understandably, has withdrawn from the tournament.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Video: WPTV.com

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