In early October a three-year-old filly named Top of the Stretch was shipped from Presque Isle to Parx. Her trainer, Blane Servis, said that she ran in an allowance race and didn’t perform as expected. “She got tired and stuff and didn’t run her race. She came out of the race fine,” he explained. But then there were alarming developments. “The next morning we were going to have the vet come and look at her. The groom said she was peeing all over. She was kind of hunched up behind and couldn’t control herself.”
Servis said he thought it was EPM, also known as possum fever, which is caused by a protozoa found in areas where horses and opossums share streams, ponds and fields. Horses can contract EPM by eating hay contaminated with opossum feces. EPM is a debilitating neurological disease, and outcomes are not always positive. He said the veterinarian “didn’t like the fact that she was urinating on herself. That made him think it could possibly be herpes.” Because of the speed of the progression of symptoms, the veterinarian recommended taking the horse to Mid-Atlantic Equine Medical Center for the safety of Top of the Stretch and other horses at the racetrack.
The diagnosis of equine herpes virus came within hours, requiring immediate quarantine of the stables at Parx. Depending upon the strain of the virus, equine herpesvirus can cause fever and respiratory illness, and the neurologic form of the virus is often fatal. Highly contagious, it can spread through groups of horses through contact with contaminated equipment or with people who have handled infected horses. The virus is believed to be viable on outside surfaces for up to seven days.
No horses on the grounds were permitted to leave until the quarantine period was scheduled to end on October 29. Clearly this event complicated life for everyone—horses, trainers, track employees and the racetrack management.
Parx Director of Racing Operations Samuel Elliott explained that the Fall Festival—a series of races with large purses—had just begun. “Part of the reason for having a festival is to draw equine and human talent from around the region,” Elliott says. “Obviously once you close your barn area, that’s no longer possible.”
He said the festival was supposed to end on October 21, eight days before the quarantine was scheduled to end. Rather than re-schedule the Fall Festival, Elliott said that they raised the value of the purses for the races that ran throughout the quarantine period. He said that they would have gone back to their normal purse structure after the Fall Festival. Instead, “we took the additional money for those three weeks (of the quarantine) and enhanced the purses to a higher level than they would have been to the end of the year.” He says the purses are now $300,000 a day, where they would have been $240,000 a day.
Elliott says that the weeks when just the local horsemen were at the track were an opportunity to spread the purse money and build good will. By mid-October, no other horses had tested positive for the disease, and Elliott was hopeful that the disease would be confined to just one horse.
Quarantined, But Not Ill
Although Top of the Stretch is recovering, Servis says that it’s not yet clear what her long-term prospects will be. “She’s expected to make a full recovery,” he says, “she’s still a little neurologic, but doing a lot better.” He says the horse’s owners will make the final decision. “She was a horse that had a lot of potential, even though she didn’t run good the last time,” he says. “You could tell that she could develop. We’ll see what happens.”
A more immediate concern to Servis, once he was sure Top of the Stretch was in good hands, was making sure the rest of the horses he had at Parx would not lose condition. In the past, he says, horses in quarantine were restricted from the track for training. “Not being able to race for a month really stinks, and it’s a hurt on our pockets and the owners’ pockets; but not being able to keep your horse fit was even worse,” he says. Since it was one of his horses that contracted herpes, all his horses were thought to be contagious. “She was on the track the day she showed signs of being sick,” he says. “If she was really that contagious, somebody would have got it on the track.”
He said that they had help from track personnel who let him get his horses on the track to train. “They close the track half an hour early and let us go onto the track for an hour,” he says. “The ponies and outriders are all from our barn, and we can’t go near the outside and inside rails.”
“The problem is—and I’ve learned quickly—they don’t know much about the disease,” Servis says. “They treat every positive like the worst case scenario. Last year it went on forever because they had to test every horse in the barn. They kept finding horses testing positive, but were not showing any clinical signs.”
A Breeder’s Sprint Contender Caught in the Quarantine
One of the horses quarantined at Parx was Favorite Tale, a four-year-old gelding that had earned a spot in the Breeder’s Cup Sprint at Keeneland the last weekend in October. Elliott says that Favorite Tale was permitted to leave Parx. “With an agreement between the vets from the Agriculture Department, the horse was able to leave here and I believe is stabled in a barn by himself at Delaware Park.” Pending the outcome of subsequent testing, the horse was scheduled to run at Keeneland.
Elliott has been at Parx since January, and despite the quarantine and all the complications it presented, he’s optimistic. “I think the future’s bright. I just take care of my business here and I think we’re going along okay. The management and the horsemen and the breeders work well together.”