Kentucky Can't Pinpoint Origin of Strangles Cases

Kentucky legislators received assurances July 13 the state is well equipped to handle future equine disease outbreaks, but they got no answers to questions about the origin of the strangles cases earlier this spring at the Churchill Downs Trackside Training Center.

Strangles and other diseases were the focus of a meeting of the Interim Joint Subcommittee on Horse Farming, which gathered for the first time this year. The committee was formed two years ago to address timely issues related to the state's equine industry.

Dr. Robert Stout, state veterinarian with the Office of State Veterinarian under the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, said the recent experience with strangles, and later equine herpesvirus, will help officials deal with future disease outbreaks. He said communication and bio-security measures are of the utmost importance, as is the reporting of symptoms at the outset.

"Early detection is absolutely imperative," Stout said.

Strangles, an equine bacterial disease, is spread through contact. Equine herpesvirus, a respiratory disease, can be spread through the air. Stout said if bio-security measures hadn't been in place, each situation could have been worse.

The first strangles cases were made public in early March at the Louisville training facility in the barns of William "Blackie" Huffman and Dale Romans. Soon after, horses trained by Romans were quarantined in South Florida because of strangles. Later this spring and early summer, cases were discovered at Indiana Downs, Prairie Meadows, and Ellis Park.

Early in the Kentucky quarantine process, there was speculation about how the outbreak began, but backstretch personnel wouldn't comment on the record.

When asked by legislators how the disease made its way to Louisville in the first place, Stout said: "Where it came from is difficult to ascertain." He said strangles can remain on a farm or in a horse for long periods of time, and isn't categorized as a reportable disease in Kentucky.

Churchill Downs general manager Jim Gates told the subcommittee the racetrack "very diligently" sought the cause of the outbreak. He said the "time factor" was a problem," but in the future, officials should be able to better track the origin of diseases.

"My understanding is both strangles and equine herpesvirus can lie dormant in a system for a number of years," Gates said. "I don't any way with any degree of certainty think we can say we're keeping it off the racetrack."

Gates said the strangles situation cost Churchill about $15,000-$20,000. The direct cost associated with equine herpevirus, he said, was about $50,000, though the overall hit was considerably bigger.

"It's impossible to calculate," Gates said, "but 90 of our about 1,400 horses weren't able to move or race, and that cost us up to five horses a day, or about half a horse per race. It definitely impacted handle. It was a pretty strong reminder to us of the fragility of our industry."

Stout said the state is working with the University of Kentucky on a software package that will allow for information management. He also noted the National Animal Identification System, which will be mandatory in several years, will aid in tracking the movement of horses.

Dr. Peter Timoney, chairman of the Department of Veterinary Science in the UK Gluck Equine Research Center, said it's imperative people realize the state's horse industry is national, if not global, in nature, and take the necessary precautions.

"We've got to inspire a very high level of confidence in our trading partner in other states and countries," Timoney said.