Friday, May 03, 2002

Foal illnesses have horse industry on edge again



By STEVE BAILEY
AP Sports Writer

        LEXINGTON, Ky. — A handful of sick foals have turned up in Kentucky in recent days, raising fears in the state's billion-dollar horse industry of a return of the mystery illness that killed hundreds of foals last spring.

        “The first thing that pops into your head is, "Oh no. It's starting all over again,”' said Tom Evans, manager of Trackside Farm in Versailles.

        “Then you start wondering what is really true and what has just been blown up by the rumor mill. That's the way it started last year.”

        As one of thoroughbred racing's premier showcases — the Kentucky Derby — approached last May, pregnant mares on horse farms across central Kentucky began delivering weak foals that needed days of medical treatment to survive if they lived at all. Hundreds of foals died and thousands of mares lost early-term pregnancies.

        By the time the deaths subsided several weeks later, about 3.8 percent of the state's 2001 foal crop and a staggering 15 percent of the foals that would have been born on Kentucky farms this spring were lost. Economists estimated the industry lost as much as $350 million.

        Until now, researchers had been optimistic that the illness known as Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome would not reappear this spring.

        Late Wednesday, however, the Kentucky Association of Equine Practitioners released a statement revealing that three sickly foals had been admitted to area veterinary hospitals in recent days.

        All three had symptoms similar to those seen last spring in foals stricken with the illness — respiratory failure, lack of strength and dehydration.

        Dr. Bill Bernard, internal medicine specialist at Lexington's Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital and president of the equine practitioners organization, said a handful of early-term foal losses also have been documented.

        “In no way are we saying that the illness is back in full force,” said Bernard, whose hospital was overrun with dozens of sick foals about this time last year. “We've just seen a few isolated cases that are similar in nature.

        “We're just trying to put facts out there to let everyone know what we're seeing and hearing out in the field. If you don't do that, rumors get started and before long everyone is panicking.”

        Bernard would not identify specific farms that had experienced early-term pregnancy losses or sickly foals.

        Although scientists cannot definitively say what caused the illness, a report released Wednesday revealed that the eastern tent caterpillar may play a critical role.

        New experimental trials conducted by the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture indicate that mares exposed to caterpillars and their droppings have higher rates of foal loss than those that are not.

        Scientists and the equine practitioners group have advised horse farmers to shelter pregnant mares from the caterpillars whenever possible and to eliminate nests on their property.

        Researchers also are looking into several other possible causal agents, including unusual weather patterns, toxins associated with pasture grasses, minerals, yeasts and molds.

        As this year's Kentucky Derby approaches, Evans and other horse track managers are on edge to see if history repeats itself.

        “I think a lot of us are going to be holding our breath,” he said. “After what we went through last year, to hear they're seeing anything even slightly similar is cause for alarm.”

       



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