Bad things happen. But you expect them to happen less often to the horses that play the Polo Club circuit.

Living with in-house masseuses, fancy veterinarians, frequent hydrotherapy, and first-class flight accommodations––while boasting an asking price of $200K––has something to do with it. Never mind that they’re treated like celebrities wherever they go.

That’s probably why yesterday’s Miami Herald detailed Sunday’s horrible death of 21 polo ponies at the US Open in Wellington, FL––on the front page. Rarely does any animal news make the big headlines here. But this was an animal event worthy of periodical rubbernecking if there ever was one. 

One by one, the horses belonging to one team staggered, fell and died––in front of the 4,000 fans assembled for this SuperBowl of polo. Tarps were set up to shield the horses’ death throes from the onlookers as veterinarians rushed to place IV catheters and administer medications in an attempt to reverse the symptoms. To no avail. Every single affected horse died...and fast. 

Whether you own polo ponies or gerbils, whether you’re a witness to the events or not, a series of deaths this widespread and swift is both frightening and tragic. Is this a communicable disease? What’s responsible? Am I going to take it home to my horses/gerbils? Do my animals have the possibility to succumb like these? How would I handle it?

By all account everyone was desperate and in tears. The grooms, the players, the spectators, the officials. The event was cancelled. Everyone went home to cry over the dead––except the veterinarians, who were up all night trying to salvage the still living. None survived. 

Now it’s the pathologists’ turn. They’re working hard to find a toxic substance that may have been accidentally, negligently or deliberately fed to the horses in their water, their grain, their supplements or their roughage. Sure smells like a toxin. You don’t have to be a horse vet to see that diagnosis coming. 

At least local fears over a transmissible disease have been [mostly] allayed in this horse-addled enclave of suburban Palm Beach––to be replaced by conspiracy theories concerning the Venezuelan team’s potential enemies and political foes, by concerns over mandatory drug testing in the sport. 

I, for one, can’t help thinking about Barbaro, Eight Belles, Big Brown and all the other horses who succumbed to their sport. Though nothing’s been revealed and no evidence yet exists to point fingers or assess blame, I get that same game-day-gone-wrong feeling, nonetheless. Can you blame me?