01/30/2003 12:00AM

Abortion rate up from '02

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - A new year brings a new foaling season and fresh worries about mare reproductive loss syndrome, the as-yet-unidentified disease that has caused thousands of equine abortions in central Kentucky. According to figures released Jan. 27 by the University of Kentucky's Livestock Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, which receives aborted fetuses for post-mortem examination, the abortion rate this year appears to be running significantly ahead of last year's. Since Jan. 1, 2003, the lab has received 134 fetuses, as compared to 99 for the same period in 2002. Forty of the fetuses on this year's tally came in the week preceding Jan. 27.

But laboratory director Dr. Lenn Harrison noted that the cause of the upswing, and the reasons behind this year's abortions, are not fully known. The good news so far, Harrison said, is that the lab's veterinary pathologists have found no hard evidence of MRLS, but the 40 most recent submissions hadn't been fully examined yet. It will be about a week before those results are available.

"What we've seen is not entirely consistent with MRLS," Harrison said. "We haven't picked up a pattern so far, other than that the numbers are up, but even the numbers aren't anything statistically like we saw with the springtime occurrences of MRLS."

From the time a breeder or farm manager submits aborted material until the lab can provide a detailed record of findings takes about a week to 10 days. That accounts for the delay in examining last week's 40 submissions. The lab's diagnostic evaluations start with a post-mortem. Pathologists first check the fetus's development, to see whether it is properly developed for its age.

"Then we look at every organ to see whether it's normal in shape and size," Harrison said. "We take select sections of tissue that are highly likely to tell us something, and we also take anything abnormal that we see in tissue."

Armed with samples - including tissue from the lungs, liver, kidney, spleen, brain, thymus, and heart muscle - the pathologists move into microscopic investigation.

"A bacteriologist cultures the samples," Harrison said. "We look for bacterial agents, and we test tissue regularly for herpesviruses and leptospirosis."

Despite detailed analysis, the causes of some diseases like MRLS remain elusive. But the more information the pathologists collect, the better their chances of identifying telling patterns that might lead to answers. That valuable information comes from the aborted material, and Harrison reminded Kentucky breeders stricken with equine abortions and stillborn foals to bring in the mare's placenta, too, when possible.

"One of the difficulties is that you're looking at two different systems, the mama's and the baby's," he said. "So we prefer to get the placentas, too, because they can tell you an awful lot."

Ocala sale at Calder starts Tuesday

The Ocala Breeders' Sales Company will start the select juvenile sale season at Miami's Calder Race Course on Tuesday. Sales director Tom Ventura is optimistic that the market for 2-year-olds will remain on a par with recent years, despite the general economic downturn and a decline at the top of last year's select yearling auctions.

"We feel we'll have a good sale," Ventura said. "The economics of racing have improved, if anything, with the prospect of slots in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and other jurisdictions considering them. And the Sunshine Millions went well. Opportunities for owners to run horses for good purses are what drive the business."

Florida-breds' strong showing should help the statebreds portion of the catalog. There are 52 Florida-breds in the 201-horse catalog. The catalog's largest population is Kentucky-bred, but with MRLS likely to reduce the crop of Kentucky yearlings by 20 to 30 percent, the Sunshine Millions publicity for Florida stock could pay off in the next few years.

Potential bidders at the OBS-at-Calder sale will get one more chance to see the 2-year-olds work out for the clock on Sunday, starting at 10:30 a.m.

* Multiple graded stakes winner Cat's at Home will enter stud this year at Windfields Farm in Canada with a $5,000 (Canadian) fee.