By Calvin Palmer
An excess of selenium in a mineral and vitamin supplement was today blamed for the deaths of 21 horses at the U.S. Open Polo Championship.
Florida’s state veterinarian, Dr Thomas J. Holt, said toxicology tests on the dead horses showed significantly increased selenium levels.
The horses from the Lechuza Caracas team, owned by Venezuelan multi-millionaire Victor Vargas, began collapsing as they were unloaded from trailers at the International Polo Club Palm Beach on April 19.
“Signs exhibited by the horses and their rapid deaths were consistent with toxic doses of selenium,” Holt said.
The supplement was ordered by the team’s veterinarian from Franck’s Pharmacy in Ocala, Florida. It aimed to replicate the French-made Biodyl, which is banned in the United States and used to help horses recover quickly from exhaustion.
Jennifer Beckett, chief operating officer for Franck’s Pharmacy, said the strength of selenium was incorrect but would not say whether the error was on the part of the veterinarian or the pharmacy.
Wellington vet James Belden asked Franck’s to make a generic version of Biodyl. He was unavailable for comment.
Belden has said that he was not the main team vet but took orders from Argentine veterinarian Felix Crespo who travels with the Lechuza Caracas team. Biodyl is legal in Argentina.
Polo players have said that 5 milligrams per milliliter of selenium was used instead of the prescribed 0.5 milligrams.
Dr Murl Bailey, a toxicology professor at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, said an overdose of selenium can cause the veins in the body to dilate “so there’s really no blood coming back to the heart”.
“The horses go into shock,” he said.
Necropsies previously revealed bleeding in the horses’ lungs.
The Florida Department of Agriculture has an ongoing investigation. Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said no further information on the investigation would be disclosed at this time to prevent it from being compromised.
Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Capt Greg Richter said it is not a criminal investigation.
Richter called the deaths “an accidental overdose”. He said it will now be up to the agriculture department and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to determine if any regulations were violated.