West Nile Virus Suspected at Churchill Downs

by Joshua Hammann

The Kentucky State Veterinarian's office is investigating an unconfirmed case of West Nile virus at Churchill Downs.

Rusty Ford, equine programs manager at the state veterinarian's office, told the track that preliminary test results on a horse that was euthanized last month indicated the animal suffered from West Nile virus, Churchill Downs said in a statement Friday night.

Further tests were being conducted to confirm the diagnosis, and results should be available in a week to 10 days, the statement said.

"If it turns out to be positive, it's a reason to raise concern," said John Asher, Churchill Downs' vice president of communications. "But if it is confirmed at this time of the year, the chances of further exposure, we're told, are very small. This is not a health emergency."

Rocket Express, a 2-year-old colt trained by Churchill regular Robert Holthus, was put down Oct. 25 at a clinic in Lexington. The horse had suffered symptoms of a severe neurological disorder, but track officials said the virus was not considered as a possible cause for the problem until a post-mortem examination led to the preliminary diagnosis.

Asher said the horse was stabled at the track in the spring and returned Oct. 1.

State veterinarians recommended that the track pay special attention to standing or stagnant pools of water around the track or any other places where mosquitoes could be found, Asher said.

"We pump hundreds of thousands of gallons of water on the track each week, so there's a lot of water around this place," he said.

The West Nile virus is usually carried by birds. Mosquitoes can acquire it from infected birds and can pass it along through bites to some livestock and humans.

People bitten by a mosquito carrying the virus can experience flu-like symptoms to varying degrees. Most will have a mild reaction, according to the Department for Public Health. Fewer than 1 percent will become seriously ill. A rare few will develop encephalitis, a potentially fatal inflammation of the brain.

Asher said there is virtually no threat of the virus to any of the track workers.

"We've all known that it (West Nile virus) is out there, and I think we've known the day will come that we would have to deal with this," Asher said. "It has definitely raised our awareness, and we will continue to remain vigilant in keeping the horses and workers healthy."

Rocket Express, Asher said, last raced Oct. 11 at Keeneland, finishing third in an allowance race on the turf. Asher said the colt was 1-2-1, with the victory coming at Ellis Park, in Henderson.

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