WELLINGTON, Fla. — Women in their spring dresses and men in casual linen suits sipped champagne and nibbled hors d'oeuvres as they waited for the U.S. Open polo match. What they ended up with was a field of death.
Magnificent polo ponies, each valued at up to $200,000, stumbled from their trailers and crumpled one by one onto the green grass. Vets ran out and poured water over the feverish, splayed-out animals. But it was no use. One dead horse. Then another. Then more. And within a day, 21horses were dead.
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. Possibly it was tainted feed, vitamins or supplements, or a combination of the three.
Though 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 ultrarich.
"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 15 miles west of the millionaire enclave of Palm Beach.
A befuddling frenzy
Spectators at the Sunday match had difficulty making out what was happening when the frenzy of workers and trucks hovered around the horse trailers. Soon blue tarps were hung and trailers were shuffled into place to obscure their view.
The match was canceled, replaced by an exhibition game, to keep the crowd busy. Rumors swirled, and the death toll climbed.
Some horses died on scene. Others were shuttled to clinics for treatment, but nothing could be done.
All the dead horses were from the Venezuelan-owned team Lechuza Caracas, a favorite to win the title at what is described as the World Series of polo. The team included about 40thoroughbreds in all, maybe more. The team has not commented publicly since the deaths.
Dr. Scott Swerdlin, a veterinarian at Palm Beach Equine Clinic near the polo grounds, treated one of the sick horses. He said it appeared the animals died of heart failure caused by some kind of toxin that could have been in tainted food, vitamins or supplements.
"A combination of something with an error in something that was given to these horses caused this toxic reaction," Swerdlin said Monday.
It may take days or weeks to get the results of toxicology tests, he said.
Although the value of the horses lost was great, this isn't a game people play for the money. The owners are already multimillionaires.
"You've got to have the money to part with," Newman said.
Purses rarely top a few thousand dollars. Owners do it for the pride, for the glory, for the love of the game.
"If you win this tournament, you get your name on a trophy," Newman said. And the respect of your peers. That's pretty much it. "It's a lifestyle."