08/29/2002 12:00AM

Caterpillars the focus of workshop


LEXINGTON, Ky. - It has been more than a year since mare reproductive loss syndrome devastated central Kentucky's Thoroughbred breeding operations with a wave of abortions. So far, researchers have yet to identify the mysterious disease's exact cause, but scientists meeting this week in Lexington gave progress reports in their search for the culprit.

The first MRLS workshop, hosted by the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture on Tuesday and Wednesday, drew veterinarians and researchers from the equine world as well as experts on the Eastern tent caterpillar. UK researchers have theorized that the Eastern tent caterpillar is related to the development of MRLS.

Not surprisingly, the UK conference focused largely on research related to the caterpillar theory. But it also featured presentations related to other theories, including mycotoxins (fungus-produced toxins on grass). Debate and discussion over the presentations suggested there is plenty left to study about MRLS, and, as one attendee put it, "The progress we make in identifying the cause will come in inches."

Results from one of UK's experiments, conducted by its Livestock Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, got a first airing at the workshop. That experiment induced late-term abortions in six mares given crushed caterpillars freshly fed with cyanide-filled black cherry leaves. Those mares had received a 50-gram dose of caterpillars once daily for nine days; a control group of five pregnant mares had no fetal loss.

Still, even if caterpillars are linked to MRLS, it's not clear what it is about them that might cause mares to abort. Among questions that scientists are exploring are whether the caterpillar itself is somehow toxic, and, if so, what makes it toxic, and whether the caterpillar is carrying some other abortion-causing agent, such as bacteria.

Dr. Terrence Fitzgerald, a caterpillar researcher from the State University of New York at Cortland, said caterpillars can carry bacteria that multiply rapidly if the caterpillar is stressed by temperature spikes, lack of food, or other conditions. He also confirmed that the caterpillar's setae - its "hairs" - can produce allergic responses in people. But so far neither setae nor caterpillar-carried bacteria has been known to affect other animals, leaving MRLS researchers who are interested in the caterpillar wondering whether they're breaking new ground or barking up the wrong tree.

Clearly, the study of caterpillars and their potential role in MRLS will continue.

"We strongly feel that identifying the Eastern tent caterpillar is not the end of the line," said UK researcher Dr. Karen McDowell. "It's the beginning of the line."

Several researchers also provided preliminary studies suggesting MRLS may damage the placenta, thereby killing the fetus and causing abortion without necessarily sickening the mare.

Several experiments yielded practical information for breeders. A study by the UK College of Agriculture found that among four major brands of reduced-risk insecticides used commonly on farms, Talstar and Spintor proved most effective at killing caterpillar populations quickly and showed good residual effects, still working after a week.

Another test showed that the use of the insecticides Sevin and Malathion on pasture grass did not prevent caterpillars from wandering through the grass. A third experiment, designed to determine whether pesticide spray drifting into the vicinity of broodmares' pasture would be damaging, found that the insecticides Confirm and Conserve sprayed directly on mares' hay did not cause illness, abortion, or foal abnormalities.

Dixiana Farm for sale

Dixiana Farm, the historic Lexington nursery whose property was once home to such legendary Thoroughbred stallions as Domino and Himyar, is on the market.

Bill Justice's Justice Real Estate has listed the 305-acre farm for $5 million on behalf of owner Mary Lou Wibel. Wibel's former business partner, Bruce Kline, left Dixiana and bought nearby Spendthrift Farm last year with a group of partners.

Dixiana, located north of Lexington in the same area as Spendthrift, Mt. Brilliant Farm, and Domino Stud, includes a 6,200-square-foot main residence, a 24-stall training barn and six additional barns for a total of 75 stalls, and six employee residences.

Justice also has listed John and Kim Glenney's Gardens Glen Farm near Midway. The $2 million property includes a six-horse barn on nearly 19 acres, as well as an 11,000-square-foot main residence.


Multiple Grade 1 winner Fastness, who stood at Gainesway for an advertised fee of $6,500 this year, has been sold and will relocate to Dr. William Solomon's Pin Oak Lane Farm in New Freedom, Pa. Fastness, sire of stakes winners Multiplicity, Cinquieme Essai, and Make the Bend from three crops to race, will stand in 2003 for a $3,000 fee. . . . Bob and Beverly Lewis have privately sold 5-year-old Tribunal, a graded-stakes-placed son of Deputy Minister and Six Crowns (by Secretariat), to a group of Washington-based investors. Bloodstock agent Reynolds Bell Jr. negotiated the deal, which will send Tribunal to stud in 2003 at El Dorado Farm in Enumclaw, Wash., as the property of a syndicate; no stud fee has been announced.