Guarding the entrance to the Lechuza Caracas estate in Wellington is a gate at least eight feet high, topped with iron spikes and emblazoned with the golden emblem of an owl. An electronic keypad out front is the only way to make the doors swing open, but for now they remain firmly shut. That's where sympathizers have left a small pile of offerings -- bouquets of roses, tulips, a card saying "Best Wishes."
Twenty-one horses fed, watered, and coddled on this estate died mysteriously Sunday, just before they were set to compete in the prestigious U.S. Open Polo Championship a few miles away. Some of the animals collapsed as they were being brought out of their trailers onto the grounds of the International Polo Club Palm Beach for the competition; others began to act dizzy and sick before they arrived, says Tim O'Connor, a spokesman for the club.
Pathologists at a state Department of Agriculture lab yesterday were still conducting necropsies and running tests to figure out what killed the animals in numbers that are "unheard of," according to John Wash, president of operations for the club. By late last evening, there seemed to be agreement among veterinarians who treated the horses that all had had similar toxic reactions, but the exact source of that poison was still unclear.
By 3 p.m. yesterday, 16 cars and news trucks were lined up just inside the entrance to the polo club, facing the empty game field. There were trucks from CBS, FOX, and ABC, plus some guy with a British accent who was using his car window as a mirror to adjust his shirt. CNN pulled a team off coverage of a Jamaican hijacking attempt to get here, O'Connor said. Yet there was nothing new to report for hours on end -- just the live backdrop of dauntingly green grass. O'Conner, on the job since 7:30 a.m., was fielding cell phone calls from the shade of his golf cart. Wash, looking deeply tanned and exhausted, was chugging Diet Coke between cameos.
The polo world in Wellington is a land of service entrances and plantation-style farms. Team Lechuza Caracas is owned by Venezuelan millionaire Victor Vargas, and O'Connor says he's heard that as many as 100 horses are kept on the team's Wellington farm. Some horses are still visible from the gate near the service entrance. There's also a sandlot filled with hurdles -- presumably for the horses to practice jumping -- and an enormous cream-colored main house with a Spanish tiled roof. At one point yesterday, two men walked near the main entrance with their heads down, speaking intensely. One man looked up when a reporter called out to him from behind the gate. Then he just kept walking.