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Mystery illness kills 21 polo horses from Venezuelan team at tournament in Fla.

Scott Swerdlin (left) was one of the veterinarians who responded when the horses collapsed just before competition. Scott Swerdlin (left) was one of the veterinarians who responded when the horses collapsed just before competition. (Getty Images Photo / Joe Raedle)
Associated Press / April 21, 2009
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WELLINGTON, Fla. - The sudden death of 21 polo horses at a championship event in Florida may have been caused by a toxin in the animals' feed, vitamins, or supplements, veterinarians said yesterday.

The horses, each valued at up to $200,000, stumbled from their trailers and crumpled one by one onto the grass. Vets ran out and poured water over the feverish, splayed-out animals, but it was no use.

State veterinarians were still performing necropsies but suspect the horses died from heart failure brought on by some sort of toxic reaction in their bodies. While polo club officials and several independent veterinarians insisted the deaths appeared to be accidental, it remained a mystery that puzzled and saddened those close to a sport that has long been a passion of Palm Beach County's ultra-rich.

"The players, the owners of the horses were in tears. Bystanders and volunteers were in tears. This was a very tragic thing," said Tony Coppola, 62, an announcer for the International Polo Club Palm Beach in this palm tree-lined town some 15 miles west of the millionaire enclave of Palm Beach.

All the dead horses were from the Venezuelan-owned team Lechuza Caracas, a favorite to win the title at the US Open Polo Championship, described as the World Series of the sport. Polo club manager Jimmy Newman said it was like losing half the New York Yankees. "They lost some great horses," he said.

John Wash, the polo club's president of club operations, said doctors had ruled out any sort of airborne infection. "This was an isolated incident involving that one team," Wash said.

"This was devastating," he added. "It was heartbreaking to see that many horses get sick all at once."

He said games would resume tomorrow, with the finals taking place Sunday. The Lechuza team has withdrawn, the club said.