Steve Mitchell/AP
Flowers are shown at a makeshift memorial outside of Lechuza Caracas Inc. in Wellington,

Vitamin Suspected in Polo Horse Deaths

April 21, 2009 06:00 PM
by Kate Davey
A tainted dose of Biodyl may have caused the death of 21 polo horses that collapsed before the quarterfinal match of the United States Open Polo Championship in Florida.

Biodyl is Primary Suspect in Polo Tragedy

The Miami Herald reports Juan Martin Nero, the captain of the Lechuza Caracas polo team, told Buenos Aires newspapers that the vitamin supplement Biodyl was injected into all of the horses that died; the five horses that were not injected are still alive. Nero explained that the vitamin is used to help the horses recover from exhaustion, and is always given to them: ''For us, the suspicions are that there was something bad in the laboratory.''

Biodyl is not approved for use in the U.S.; one American veterinarian suggested that it was "dangerous." In addition, Florida polo patron Neil Hirsch says that while all polo horses receive vitamins, they are generally not administered on the day of the match.

On Sunday, horses from the Lechuza Caracas Polo Team of Venezuela passed out in front of hundreds of spectators, 45 minutes before their quarterfinal match against Black Watch. Veterinarians there for the game rushed to help, but 15 horses died during the day and another six died overnight. The event is considered the most prestigious polo event in the United States.

According to The New York Times, polo horses are considered more valuable to the sport than the players. All of the horses were worth about $100,000 and were about 10 or 11 years old. Victor Vargas, the owner of Lechuza Caracas, also owned many of the horses that died.

At the time, veterinarians believed that the horses all ingested or were injected with a toxin that killed them. John Harvey, assistant dean of the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine, where the horses’ bodies were taken, told the Los Angeles Times, “The suspicion here is toxins because of how sudden these animals died. But since we don’t know what we're looking for, there are literally thousands of things we can test for.”

Infectious disease was quickly ruled out as a cause. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the necropsies (animal autopsies) will include examination of trauma and lesions, tissue samples from the horses’ major organs and toxicology tests and could take two weeks. Harvey has explained that examiners will look for similarities among the animals, but that it “could actually be easier to find what the horses were exposed to on the site [where they were kept] than to find it on the animals.”

Polo Horses Mourned by International Community

Peter Rizzo, executive director of the United States Polo Association, said this is the most tragic incident he’s ever seen in polo. It may be hard for those who are not polo enthusiasts to understand the close relationship between the horses and the human team members. Rizzo explained, “It’s a bond that is close to marriage—it’s different than a dog. It’s an amazing thing, and these horses were some of the best in the world.”

The American Polo Horse Association issued a press release on Sunday, in which John Wash, President of Club Operations, stated, “Our hearts go out to team Lechuza Caracas and hope that a speedy answer can be obtained on what happened to their magnificent animals.”

The horses’ deaths have disturbed the national polo community. Ted Oslager, manager of the Southampton Hunt and Polo Club, told Newsday, “First thing I thought was it's just a horrible thing to have happen. You start thinking about your own horses and hope they're safe.”

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