Researchers Seeking Best Way to Eliminate Caterpillars

A University of Kentucky entomologist is hoping to soon discover the safest and most effective way to destroy the eastern tent caterpillars believed responsible for the outbreaks of mare reproductive loss syndrome experienced in Kentucky and neighboring states over the last two years.

Prof. Dan Potter, in a $50,000 project funded by Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, has a team working on two fronts as the dangerous phase of the insects' life cycle approaches. The first method is finding an environmentally safe and effective compound that can be sprayed on unborn egg masses that will kill the caterpillars before they hatch. The second area being investigated is injection of cherry trees with chemicals that will kill the caterpillars but not endanger horses or the environment.

Potter hopes to make his findings public before the spring, even if the entire research project is not completed. John Hettinger, chairman of Grayson-Jockey Club and a principal of Fasig-Tipton, said the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky sale pavilion in Lexington would be made available on short notice when Potter is ready to hold a briefing for horsemen, allowing them to be aware of the ongoing research and make individual decisions regarding eradication of the caterpillars.

"Our 2002 work identified the strengths (and limitations) of available insecticides and treatment strategies," said Potter. "Several of the canopy-spray products gave excellent, rapid control with at least seven days' residual activity; but one of the most effective products has 'grazing restrictions' on the label, and spraying of 90-foot trees is logistically difficult and expensive."

Potter added in the case of tree-injection methods that "it would be useful to have injection products that last longer and are less inherently toxic" than those used to date.

Grayson-Jockey Club president Edward L. Bowen announced the caterpillar eradication project during a reception in which a new information video on the foundation was screened. The five-minute video, narrated by recently retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, reviews the 62-year history of the foundation and highlights many of the achievements resulting from the nearly $10 million dedicated to 200 research projects at 30 universities.

"All these projects generate the steps, large and small, which create a healthier, sounder future for the horse," McCarron said in the video. "The humane treatment of the animal drives the effort, of course, but a healthier horse also creates an economic bonus for the owners and the industry."

The video, which seeks to raise awareness of the foundation as well as the need for additional members and donors, will be distributed to racetracks, owners and breeders associations, and various groups throughout the horse industry.