The bluegrass state had barely recovered from its annual Kentucky Derby bacchanal when grim news hit: Pregnant mares were experiencing an unusually high number of stillbirths and miscarriages. By Sunday the toll had surpassed 1,000 fetuses and foals, and it is expected to continue to climb until the foaling season ends in June. "Nobody's sure what's going on," says Arthur Hancock, owner of Stone Farm in Paris, Ky., which has seen 10 pregnancies fail. "It's like the twilight zone of the bluegrass."
Though the cause of the phenomenon is uncertain, medical specialists say fungal poisons called mycotoxins may have formed on pasture grasses after a sudden cold snap interrupted a very warm, dry April. Broodmares apparently aren't the only horses affected. Veterinarians note a rise in ill health among horses of both sexes and all age groups.
About a week before the Kentucky Derby, vets began detecting an unusually high number of lost fetuses in newly pregnant mares during routine ultrasound exams. At the same time, late-term mares started delivering stillborn foals, often dropping them while grazing in fields or paddocks. Since then, foals that have survived birth have developed numerous illnesses that threaten to raise the mortality figures further. At the Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington last week, as many as 15 critically ill foals were brought in each day, about three times the normal number. "It's like a MASH unit in here," says internist Bill Bernard. "I've never seen anything like it."
Nor has anyone else in Kentucky, whose $900 million breeding industry is the biggest in North America. Estimates for losses to the 2002 crop range from 10% to 40%; the revenue hit could exceed $150 million. For speculators like Ashford Stud of Versailles, Ky., which paid $60 million for Fusaichi Pegasus, the effects may be devastating, because Ashford collects its $150,000 stud fee only if a mare produces a live foal. "It takes only a few deaths to be hit hard," says Jim Smith, a vet since 1958. "This is the biggest crisis ever to face the thoroughbred industry." With no clear end in sight.