KENTUCKY farms seek answers from scientists, equine experts in foals' mysterious deaths

Friday, May 11th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) _ More than 1,000 farm managers, breeders and veterinarians gathered to hear scientists and equine experts offer the latest information on an illness that is killing foals and causing mares to lose fetuses.

They learned that scientists have given the baffling syndrome a name _ Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome _ but left the meeting with more questions than answers.

``We're still just taking our best guess here as to what exactly is going on,'' said Claiborne Farm manager Gus Koch, who over the past week has had one stillborn foal and 10 early-term mare miscarriages on his Paris farm. ``But we got some good information, and I'm hopeful that this thing is going to run its course sometime soon.''

For the first time, researchers acknowledged the illness may not be limited to Kentucky's horse farms. Participants mentioned similar cases in Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania, though they may be occurring on a smaller scale, said David Powell, equine epidemiologist for the University of Kentucky's Gluck Equine Research Center.

The number of dead foals reported to the university's Livestock Diagnostic Center has decreased in recent days. Since April 28, a total of 382 dead foals or miscarried fetuses have been reported to the center. The numbers dropped from 28 on Tuesday to 15 on Thursday, said Dr. Lenn Harrison, the diagnostic center's director of veterinary pathology.

``Although it's premature to say that things are getting better, it is an encouraging sign,'' Harrison said.

Researchers theorize that Kentucky's warm, dry spring followed by hard freezes and subsequent drought-like conditions have fostered the growth of a fungus or toxin in grasses eaten by horses.

Several teams of researchers are focusing their efforts in that area, collecting samples of fescue, bluegrass and clover from area farms and testing them for high levels of several mold-based mycotoxins.

Scientists also will continue to collect and analyze blood, tissue, soil and hay samples until a cause can be determined.

``We're not ruling out anything until we build a better, more complete picture,'' Powell said.

Early estimates indicate Kentucky's $1.2 billion thoroughbred industry could see a 30 percent to 40 percent reduction in the number of horses born in 2002 and losses of hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years.

Kentucky normally produces about 10,000 thoroughbred foals each year, about one-third of those born in the United States.