Southern California trainer Bob Baffert said in a statement April 12 that an unusual string of sudden deaths in his barn is "personally troubling" and that he hopes state pathologists can help uncover a cause of the deaths.
"The safety of my horses has been and always will be the most important thing to me," Baffert said. "The mysterious deaths are personally troubling and of great sadness to me, my family and the owners of the horses. My heart goes out to the horses' owners."
"I am working with everyone, including the California Horse Racing Board, my veterinarians and staff at the tracks, to find causes for the unexplained deaths," the trainer said. "California Horse Racing Board's Bo Derek and the state's equine medical director, Dr. Rick Arthur, have made it clear that nothing I have done has caused any horse I have trained to suffer equine sudden death syndrome. My professional focus will continue to be to provide the best care for my horses, with constant concern for their well-being."
Baffert, a member of the Hall of Fame, lost seven horses to sudden death between July 1, 2011, and March 14, 2013. While examination of most of the causes of death were inconclusive, necropsy reports identified pulmonary hemorrhage, signs of bacterial infection, cardiac collapse and encephalomyelitis among the possible contributing factors.
One of the horses that died was Irrefutable, a 5-year-old son of Unbridled's Song who collapsed after finishing second Nov. 26, 2011, in the Vernon O. Underwood Stakes at Betfair Hollywood Park.
"He was heading back [to the barn], and everything looked OK," Baffert said after the race. "He ran great. After he was unsaddled, he took about 10 steps. We thought he was having a heat stroke. He must have had a heart attack."
The necropsy report noted the cause was likely due to a conduction problem in the heart.
In a case from early January 2012, a 4-year-old colt that died suddenly during training at Hollywood Park was found to have severe encephalomyelitis. When released to the public, state necropsy reports have the name of the horse, any identifying pedigree information and the owners' names redacted.
"This was an unexpected finding, as no neurological clinical signs were reported. Also, encephalomyelitis is not a usual lesion associated with sudden death, which makes this case even more puzzling," the necropsy report noted.
Later testing identified brain lesions compatible with equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, which can cause lesions that can cause temporary inflammation and permanent nerve damage.
While the microorganism Sarcocystis neurona, which is the leading cause of EPM, was suspected in causing damage to the horse's central nervous system, the spinal cord had not been collected for testing so the cause of death was officially undetermined.
"I hope that research by CHRB and its pathologists will discover information helpful to understanding the reasons that I, and many of my colleagues, have had horses suffer this unfortunate fate," Baffert said.