Werner Discusses Equine Herpes Outbreak

By Kathleen Adams
For trainer Ronny Werner, the May 18 quarantine that effectively closed down three barns on the backside of Churchill Downs due to the suspected outbreak of equine herpes virus came exactly one week after a filly under his care went down in her stall and inexplicably lost all mobility.

"What's scary with this filly is there were no signs," Werner said of 2-year-old Angela's Storm who arrived at the trainer's barn two weeks prior from a horse sale in Ocala, Fla. "No temperature. No coughing, nothing. That's the odd thing."

Werner said the youngster galloped fine May 10, but the next morning, as he and his staff were busy getting horses ready to train, he noticed Angela's Storm was hanging her head as though she didn't feel well.

"Her temp was 99.9," Werner said. "We check our temps twice a day, so I know her temp."

The Texas-native who stables 26 racehorses at Churchill Downs and another eight at Keeneland said the young filly's behavior didn't initially concern him. Already assigned a light training schedule, Werner simply decided to back off the horse for a day.

Shortly after making that decision, the situation turned dire when Angela's Storm went down and was obviously paralyzed.

Werner immediately contacted veterinarian Steve Allday. The two men suspected equine protozoal myeloencephalities, or EPM, a disease which affects the spinal cord and brain and made arrangements for the horse to be transported to Hagyard-Davidson-McGee veterinary clinic in Lexington, Ky.

At that point, Werner said Allday also contacted the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

Before a diagnosis could be made, Angela's Storm, who Werner said never regained mobility, was euthanized. A few days later, Werner received word that the filly was infected with the contagious EHV-1.

As Werner, 45, recalled the chain of unfortunate events, he stood next to several plastic grocery bags resting on a tack box inside his barn. Each bag contained two large containers of bleach.

"We're bleaching all the stalls inside and out," he said. "We're disinfecting shanks and using Clorox wipes in between horses."

As a precautionary measure, the veteran trainer is also treating all 20 horses in his barn with the antiviral medication Acyclovir.

"It's cheap compared to what we've been through," Werner said of the drug whose efficacy is unknown.

In 24 years of training racehorses, Werner said he's never had one contract equine herpes virus. The upper respiratory and neurological ailment has essentially closed down his business.

A security guard sits outside of his barn making sure no unauthorized horses leave or enter the premises. Guards have been placed outside of the two other affected barns which belong to trainers Steve Assmussen and Paul McGee.

"I'm just having to deal with it," Werner said. "I understand the need to protect our neighbors."

None of Werner's horses are currently exhibiting signs of EHV-1 and the trainer said he hopes they will soon be able to resume workouts.

"It's like a gut punch," he said. "The main thing is the horses are healthy. Their health and well-being is number one."

And with six horses stabled in another barn at Churchill Downs Werner still has charges going out to the track every morning.

"The ones ready to run are here," said Werner motioning towards his quarantined barn. "The first race we win, those memories will go away. You have to kind of ride the wave."