At around 2:15 on Sunday, April 19, polo ponies from the Lechuza Caracas polo team began to die. They were scheduled to play in a quarter final match of the US Open tournament at the International Polo Club Palm Beach at 3:00. But when their trailer arrived at the field, at least one horse inside was already down. As the rest of the horses were unloaded from the trailer, they showed signs of confusion, dizziness and respiratory distress. One by one they collapsed to the grass.
Although about 20 veterinarians rushed to attend to the stricken animals, there was nothing that could be done. They administered intravenous fluids, cooled the horses with fans and ice packs, and desperately sought anything that might be an antidote to what appeared to be a some type of poison. About 100 people tended to the downed horses. Observers erected blue tarps to shield them from the crowd. Seven horses were transported back to Palm Beach Equine Clinic. But 11 horses were dead within an hour. A further 10 died before Monday morning, some of them at the clinic, others at the Lechuza barn. The official death count is 21, but unofficial reports say there may be as many as 30 dead horses.
The horses went down so suddenly it was clear to the veterinarians that the cause of the "mysterious illness" was not a virus or any contagious disease. Necropsies are being performed at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville and by state vets at the Animal Disease Diagnostic Lab in Kissimmee, trying to determine exactly what killed the horses.
Although veterinarians who spoke to the press said they suspected that the horses may have eaten something poisonous, the word around the polo world was quite different. According to unconfirmed reports, the horses had received injections before the match. Exactly what the injections contained is unknown, although the shots were supposed to be vitamins to help the horses recover from the stress of the game. The injections, if they are indeed to blame for the deaths, may have been a combination of vitamins and other substances. They may have been contaminated (one report posited that they were contaminated with cleaning fluid) or they may have contained a combination of substances that caused a toxic reaction.
Lechuza Caracas is owned by Venezuelan banker and player Victor Vargas. Lechuza was considered one of the top teams in Florida this winter. News reports say that the horses that died were worth about 2 million dollars. Many of them were owned by Lechuza, but some were owned by the players. Several of the horses were reportedly leased to the team by other players. On Monday, Lechuza withdrew from the US Open tournament and issued a statement about the tragedy.
It may be several days before pathologists determine what killed the horses. In the meantime, investigations have been launched by the Florida Department of Agriculture, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office and the United States Polo Association.