WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – At the same time polo fans gathered to mourn 21 prized horses that died before a championship match, they learned that a wrongly mixed supplement may have been to blame for their deaths.
The fans returned to the International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington on Thursday for a memorial ceremony and U.S. Open match when the word spread about a Florida pharmacy's role in mixing the supplement used to help horses fight exhaustion.
Club manager Jimmy Newman said learning about the mistake was a relief to the polo community after several days of speculation.
"It's a terrible, terrible thing and it's not going to bring those 21 horses back," he said. "But at least it's down to a simple mistake. It's not sabotage and it's not anything that anyone in polo planned to do."
The Venezuela-based Lechuza polo team had hoped to get a compound similar to a name-brand supplement used safely around the world but hasn't been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Veterinarians commonly turn to compounding pharmacies for medications that can't be found on shelves, but the dispensaries can only recreate unapproved drugs in limited circumstances.
The pharmacy that mixed the concoction said that the strength of one of the ingredients was incorrect. Jennifer Beckett, chief operating officer for Franck's Pharmacy in Ocala, Fla., would not say whether the incorrect amount was specified in the order for the team that came from a Florida veterinarian.
Lechuza said the order was for a compound similar to Biodyl, a supplement that includes vitamins and minerals. The team has been administering it for many years without problems, but typically uses the manufactured version instead of going to compounding pharmacies.
"Only horses treated with the compound became sick and died within three hours of treatment," Lechuza said in a statement. "Other horses that were not treated remain healthy and normal."
While Biodyl isn't approved in the U.S., the supplement made in France by Duluth, Ga.-based animal pharmaceutical firm Merial Ltd. is widely used abroad. The president of the Argentine Equine Veterinarian Association, Fernando Ruiz, said the supplement is commonly used on horses that compete there, and he's not aware of any deaths.
It wasn't clear how closely Franck's mixture came to the name-brand drug, though. Lechuza said what they ordered was supposed to contain vitamin B, potassium, magnesium and selenium, a mineral that can be toxic in high doses.
Compound pharmacies can, among other things, add flavor, make substances into a powder or liquid or remove a certain compound that may have an adverse reaction in different animal species.
FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey said the agency's interest is now "heightened" with news the deaths could have been caused by a medical mistake at a pharmacy — one that not only produces drugs for animals, but also people.
Florida's State Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office are also investigating the deaths, and the pharmacy and polo team said they're cooperating.
Back on the field at the club, matches resumed for the first time since the deaths with a procession, a moment of silence and a prayer. White, red and pink carnations were laid on a pond bordering the field where the horses died.
"If people have ever lost their favorite dog, then they might understand how we feel," said Sandra Younts-Hitesman who participated in the memorial service and has been coming to polo matches at the club for more than 20 years. "These are some of the most beautiful and experienced horses in the world."
Dorothy Hungerford of Wrightsville, N.C. called the deaths a "freak thing."
"I'm sure the truth will come out eventually but there is no reason why someone would intentionally inject their horses with something that would kill them," she said.