WELLINGTON, Fla. – The idyllic, wealthy setting of a polo match with one of the world's top teams quickly turned horrific: Magnificent polo ponies, each valued at up to $200,000, stumbled from their trailers and crumpled one by one onto the green grass.
Now veterinarians are trying to pin down the cause of what they believe was a swift toxic reaction killing 21 horses on Sunday shortly before they were scheduled to play in the U.S. Open tournament.
"The players, the owners of the horses were in tears. Bystanders and volunteers were in tears. I mean, this was a very tragic thing," said Tony Coppola, 62, an announcer for the International Polo Club Palm Beach, which hosts the tournament each year about 15 miles west of the millionaire enclave of Palm Beach.
State veterinarians were still performing necropsies but suspect the horses — all from the Venezuelan-owned team Lechuza Polo — died from heart failure, possibly caused by tainted feed, vitamins, supplements or a combination of all three.
While polo club officials and several independent veterinarians insisted the deaths appeared to be accidental, it remained a mystery that puzzled and saddened the global polo community.
Polo enthusiasts descend each year on Wellington, a town of horse clubs, training facilities, stables, polo grounds and wide-open fenced fields where the animals roam and graze along straight-line, neatly groomed streets. The club has hosted the U.S. Open for seven years.
While women in sundresses and men in linen suits sipped champagne and nibbled on hors d'oeuvres on Sunday waiting for the match to begin, a frenzy of workers and trucks began hovering around the horse trailers nearby. Soon blue tarps were hung and trailers were shuffled into place to obscure the crowd's view.
The match was canceled, replaced by an exhibition game, to keep the crowd busy. Rumors spread and the death toll climbed.
Some horses died on scene. Others were shuttled to clinics for treatment, but there was nothing that could be done.
Lechuza Polo, a favorite to win the title at what's described as the World Series of this sport, fielded about 40 thoroughbreds in all, maybe more. The team has not spoken publicly since the deaths, but released a statement late Monday.
"This is tragic news. We are deeply concerned about the death of our ponies," the statement read. "We have never encountered such a dire situation like this as our horses receive the most professional and dedicated care possible."
The statement said the team does not know the cause of the deaths, but is helping with the investigation.
Polo club manager Jimmy Newman said it was like losing half the New York Yankees. "They lost some great horses," he said.
Dr. Scott Swerdlin, a veterinarian at Palm Beach Equine Clinic near the polo grounds, treated one of the sick horses.
"A combination of something with an error in something that was given to these horses caused this toxic reaction," he said.
John Wash, the polo club's president of club operations, said doctors had ruled out any sort of airborne infection. "This was an isolated incident involving that one team," Wash said.
"This was devastating," he added. "It was heartbreaking to see that many horses to get sick all at once."
He said games would resume on Wednesday, with the finals taking place Sunday. The Lechuza team has withdrawn. It may take days or weeks to get the results of toxicology tests.
The team is owned by affluent Venezuelan businessman Victor Vargas, who also plays, but most of the horses and players are Argentine. The team travels most of the year.
"It's just so incredible, so unbelievable. The reaction throughout the polo community worldwide is one of disbelief. Disbelief and grief," said Coppola, the club announcer.
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, if any at all. They 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, along with the respect of your peers. "It's a lifestyle."