Polo community mourns in wake of Florida barn fire that killed 8 horses

Farm Forum

PALM BEACH, Fla. – Charred remains, the smell of smoke and yellow police tape were the only remaining signs of the barn fire on March 9 at Gulfstream Polo Club in suburban Lake Worth, Fla., which left at least eight thoroughbred horses dead.

About 7 miles away, in Wellington, two survivors stood in barns with tubes feeding them antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs. Moneda ate carrots and a mixture of grains fed to her by Dr. Scott Swerdlin. Mili devoured her horse cookie. The two brown horses had suffered topical injuries and were among three horses brought to Palm Beach Equine Clinic following the fire. The third had to be euthanized, Swerdlin said.

Moneda is expected to have some minor scarring and Mili is expected to make a full recovery. Doctors want to keep an eye on the two for a few more days, but they should be able to leave the clinic in about a week and could be in competition shape within three to six weeks, Swerdlin added.

“They’re remarkable animals, so they can come back,” Swerdlin, who also owns horses, said. “You just would hope that the horses (don’t) have to go through something like this.”

The March 9 fire and the death of horses – many of which were purchased at prices of up to $50,000 apiece – was the latest tragedy to hit the polo world, which had two other fatalities in February. A horse groomer at the International Polo Club in Wellington died after being kicked, and a horse died during a match to honor the fallen groomer. However, the sport hasn’t seen a mass-casualty incident like the fire since 2009 when 21 horses collapsed and died before a polo match. It turned out an incorrect mix of medication led to their sudden deaths.

Peter Rizzo, the CEO for the U.S. Polo Association, was there in 2009.

“That was a shocker,” Rizzo said. “Fires you hear about here and there, but the 21 dead horses was probably the most profound tragedy for polo … so we haven’t forgotten that.

“This was also that same type of thing,” he added. “I’m sure the people that own the horses are mourning … It is a tragedy, and our hearts go out to the owners of the horses.”

Investigators found that the fire, which began in a 50-year-old barn and encompassed at least 10 stalls at Gulfstream Polo Club, was sparked by an electrical overload inside a tack room that appeared to have been used as a kitchen, said Palm Beach County Fire Rescue spokesman Capt. Albert Borroto.

Gulfstream’s general manager, Marla Connor, denied the fire investigators’ claim and said the tack room was not being used as a kitchen.

Several attempts to reach Connor on March 11 were unsuccessful.

“It was just very sad,” said Mark Bellissimo, CEO of Equestrian Sport Production. “Any time any animal dies, it’s always disturbing. A fire is a very traumatic experience. A lot of horse owners were really upset, and hopefully it leads to call to action.”

The tragedy sparked action by at least one local farm owner.

Kim Boyer, who owns Hampton Green Farm in Wellington, said the pictures from the fire pushed her to act. The wooden barn on her farm was built in 1980.

“It was heartbreaking, and the pictures were devastating,” Boyer said. “The first thing we did at our farm was get together and talk about what if this happened at our barn and how to prevent it; fires can spread so easily with old wiring.”

Carol Coleman of Wellington owns nine horses and is a professional horse-show judge. She, too, felt for the horses.

“Losing a horse is like losing a member of your family,” Coleman said. “They depend on you for safekeeping. When horses are in their stalls, that’s their home, their safe haven. When there’s a fire, you have trouble getting them out of the barn because that’s where they feel safe, and they’re afraid.”

On March 9, when firefighters arrived at Gulfstream, they did not hear any noises from the horses, which suggests that they might have died from inhaling smoke before firefighters arrived, fire rescue Capt. William Rowley said.

As of March 11, officials were not saying to whom the horses belonged.

One thing is clear, however. The fire and death of the horses has left a hole in the polo world, and especially in the lives of their riders.

“It was a horrible tragedy,” the Polo Association’s Rizzo said. “These polo ponies, for the players, are like family.”

Staff writer Kevin D. Thompson contributed to this story.