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Poison killed 21 polo ponies, says veterinarian

The 21 ponies that were to have competed in a Sunday polo match but suddenly died were exposed to some sort of poison, said a veterinarian. But Dr. James Belden called a report that a steroid was responsible “unsubstantiated and very unlikely.”
/ Source: TODAY contributor

The 21 ponies that were to have competed in a Sunday polo match but suddenly died were exposed to some sort of poison, said one of the veterinarians who attempted to save the animals.

“Clearly, it’s an intoxication. Clearly, there’s some sort of a poison,” Dr. James Belden told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Monday from Wellington, Fla., where the horses took ill. One of Belden’s associates was on the scene when horses began showing signs of serious illness, and Belden said he arrived soon after. 

News reports said that 14 horses belonging to a Venezuelan polo team had died, but Belden told NBC News that a total of 21 had died by the time of his interview. The horses reportedly were between 10 and 11 years old, and each was valued at about $100,000.

Belden said the source of the poison remains to be determined, but said it could have been something in the environment or something the horses were exposed to, such as drinking water, feed or bedding.

Steroid the culprit?
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, citing an unnamed source, reported that “the horses had a reaction to a steroid derivative that may have been tainted with a cleaning solution.” The newspaper wrote that in the highly competitive world of elite polo, horses are frequently administered performance-enhancing drugs before matches.

Lauer asked Belden about the reports. The veterinarian called them “unsubstantiated and very unlikely … A lot of the routine stable medication is administered by the trainer. To my knowledge they do not use steroids.”

The horses belonged to the Lechuza Caracas team, which was preparing to play a match at the International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington.

“They started getting dizzy,” polo club spokesman Tim O’Connor told The Palm Beach Post. “They dropped down right onto the grass.”

Veterinarians already at the event quickly tried treating the horses, inserting intravenous lines and trying to cool them down with fans and water. Observers hung blue tarps to shield some of the horses from the crowd’s view.

Seven of the horses died on the polo club’s grounds and the rest died after they were taken elsewhere. Belden said the immediate cause of death was pulmonary edema and cardiac arrest.

Image: Dr. James Belden

The match in the U.S. Open Polo Championship was postponed and an exhibition game with a substitute team was held in its place.

Necropsies will be performed on at least 14 of the dead horses to determine what caused the horses to take ill and die. Blood was drawn from the horses to be sent for forensic testing.

Belden said it will take 48 hours for the blood tests to come back and the necropsy reports should be available by the end of the week.

“It could be the water, hay, bedding. We just don’t know. When we find out what it is, we will take all the necessary actions,” John A. Wash, the polo club’s president of club operations, told The Palm Beach Post.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.