ESPN Horse Racing

Disease could affect next year's Triple Crown
by Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Doug Bredar was shocked this spring when he saw the effects of a disease that took the lives of many Kentucky foals and mares in 2001.

The racing director at Churchill Downs watched on Kentucky Derby day as the Three Chimneys Juvenile -- a prominent race for 2-year-olds -- went off with only five horses.

In 2002, that race drew 15 horses. In 2003, a healthy field of nine horses ran. Bredar expected the weak turnout for 2004, but what he saw still surprised him.

"Lots of things in life you know are coming and you don't really look forward to them," Bredar said. "This was one of those things."

As the racing world waits to see if Smarty Jones can complete a Triple Crown, Bredar and other horsemen are bracing for what might come in 2005 because of an outbreak of Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome in 2001.

In late April that year, some pregnant mares in Kentucky began delivering very weak foals, which needed days of medical treatment to survive, if they lived at all. During the following weeks, hundreds of foals died and thousands of mares lost early term pregnancies.

Many of the foals were lost early in the pregnancies -- foals that would have been born in 2002 and would be 2-year-olds now. The gestation period for a foal is about a year.

According to The Jockey Club, the disease reduced the number of foals born in Kentucky in 2001 by more than 500. The following year, about 1,700 foals were lost in Kentucky.

The disease baffled veterinarians. Several possible causes, including the hay eaten by mares, were considered and rejected.

David Powell, a researcher at the University of Kentucky's Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center, said the exact cause is still unknown, but that researchers are confident it had something to do with the eastern tent caterpillar. The 2001 outbreak coincided with a large infestation of the caterpillars.

Eastern tent caterpillars eat the cyanide-laced leaves of cherry trees and secrete on grass, which is then eaten by mares.

Industry and equine experts say the 2001 deaths haven't drastically affected the racing quality of this year's 3-year-old crop of thoroughbreds. But Kentucky racing officials already have seen negative effects as a result of the loss of foals that now would be racing as 2-year-olds.

Geoffrey Russell, director of sales at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, said that track's races for 2-year-olds in its recently completed spring meet featured solid fields, "but they weren't overflowing fields, which we usually have."

Bredar said the same thing is happening at Churchill Downs during its current meet.

"Races that used to fill up with no problem, now we're scrambling to fill them," he said.

Outside Kentucky, other tracks aren't experiencing the same problems -- yet.

Mike Lakow, the racing secretary at Belmont Park in New York, said there haven't been major differences in that track's 2-year-old racing fields between last year and this year.

His counterpart at Hollywood Park in California, Martin Panza, said 2-year-old field sizes for that track's current meet are "off just a fraction, but it's not a crisis. Maybe last year I would have had 12 in a race; this year I have 10."

Panza said the disease "hasn't had much of an effect" in California. That could change next year, he said, simply because of numbers.

"If you have 2,000 fewer foals, this crop will always be a light crop," he said. "After you go through the 2-year-old seasons and you weed out a bunch of those horses, there will be less 3-year-olds. It obviously will have some effect. A lot of it will be regional. I would imagine Kentucky will feel it more than California or New York."

Despite the foals lost in 2001, Smarty Jones and next year's top contenders are facing more competition on the road to the Triple Crown than any of the 11 horses who have earned that honor.

In 2001, 34,539 foals were registered in the United States, according to The Jockey Club. That was down slightly from the previous year. In 2002, the number dipped to 32,235. By 2003, it was back up to 34,025.

Affirmed, meanwhile, was one of 28,271 foals registered in 1975. Seattle Slew, foaled in 1974, was one of 27,586 thoroughbreds registered that year.

Secretariat, foaled in 1970, was one of 24,361 registered foals that year. The number of registered foals in any year didn't exceed 10,000 until 1956, 11 years after Citation -- the last Triple Crown winner before Secretariat -- was foaled.