Investigation Continues Into Deaths of Florida Horses

WELLINGTON, Fla. (AP) - 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.

Officials said the necropsies were completed by Tuesday night,
and revealed some bleeding but offered no definitive clues. Short
expects that testing blood and tissue for toxins will be more
important in pinpointing the cause. But results from toxicologies
could take weeks.

Short had said earlier in the day the necropsies may not reveal
much, given officials suspect the culprit to be "some type of
toxin or poison."

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.

While it's not clear exactly how the Lechuza horses were fed or
trained, several people involved in the sport say that keeping the
horses on a strict routine is a key to winning games. Trainers
rarely stray, especially not hours before a match.

Kris Bowman, manager of the Vero Beach Polo Club, said the
animals are generally given grain and hay in the morning, then in
the evening and more hay around noon. Some ponies also are given
electrolytes in their water, Bowman said.

"Everybody has their own style," he said. "Just like any
athlete would have for a warm-up."

The teams spend months fine-tuning their daily routines, said
Owen Rinehart, a polo player and breeder in Aiken, S.C., and it
would be unusual for a successful team like Lechuza to deviate at
the last minute.

"They certainly have done everything right in the past,"
Rinehart said. "I don't think that there's any way anybody would
compromise a situation like that."

He said trainers for top teams wouldn't risk giving a
potentially dangerous performance-enhancing drug to an entire group
of horses. The 21 Lechuza horses have been estimated to be worth
more than $2 million.

"It's just not worth it," he said.

However, the U.S. Polo Association doesn't require drug testing
of horses.

"There are no rules," the association's director, Peter Rizzo,
told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

He did not return repeated calls from The Associated Press.

The club said games would resume Thursday with a moment of
silence and a wreath laying ceremony. Finals are still set for
Sunday. The Lechuza team has withdrawn.


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