03/29/2005 1:00AM

Churchill restricts Florida shippers


LEXINGTON, Ky. - In the wake of recent strangles cases, racetracks in Kentucky have joined those in Florida and elsewhere in taking precautions to prevent the spread of the disease, a bacterial infection that strikes horses in the upper respiratory area. The disease is highly contagious but rarely fatal.

Tuesday, Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., closed its backside to horses shipping from Florida, where the Palm Meadows training center has had five horses test positive. That move, and an earlier outbreak at the Churchill-operated Trackside training center, also in Louisville, has prompted some Kentucky-bound trainers to alter their shipping plans.

Calder Race Course in Miami, Tampa Bay Downs, Woodbine near Toronto, and the New York Racing Association tracks have already placed restrictions on horses shipping from south Florida.

Churchill spokesman John Asher confirmed that track officials were asking horsemen in Florida to delay shipping to Churchill. "That's a day-to-day situation right now," Asher said Tuesday. "It could change tomorrow. But, right now, we are not accepting any more horses from Florida."

Asher said that Churchill was working closely with Dr. Robert Stout, Kentucky's state veterinarian, and Rusty Ford, equine program manager for the Kentucky state vet's office.

The Trackside training center first reported a strangles outbreak on March 17. Tests revealed that

19 horses there had the infection, but the number of positives has since dropped to five, Asher said. A third round of testing is scheduled to take place at the end of the week.

Dr. Larry Bramlage, addressing the issue during a conference call with reporters Tuesday, said the timing of the outbreak is part of the problem.

"If it wasn't five weeks until the Kentucky Derby, it would be more comfortable controlling it," he said. "If it wasn't a time when horses are moving from south to north, and with the Derby coming up, it wouldn't be that much of a concern."

Word that Churchill had closed its backstretch to Florida shippers, however briefly, had some trainers in Florida anxious to ship quickly to Keeneland in Lexington.

"The way it has affected us is we are trying to get out of here," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. "I've got 17 going to Keeneland now. I'm afraid they're going to padlock the gates and not let us out. New York closed down on us. I've only got 24 stalls at Keeneland. I couldn't move all my horses to Keeneland."

Trainer Todd Pletcher, based at Palm Meadows, shipped 22 horses from Florida to Keeneland on Tuesday, earlier than he had initially planned.

Keeneland has slightly altered its requirements for horses shipping in for the spring race meet, which opens on April 8. According to director of racing Rogers Beasley, Keeneland will require horses to have a certificate of veterinary inspection dated within two days of their arrival at the track. The certificate must include a declaration by the examining veterinarian that the horse has not been on premises under quarantine for or exposed to strangles; has not shown signs of the disease; and has not had a fever in the previous three weeks.

Keeneland will require the examining veterinarian to list the horse's rectal temperature on the health certificate. If a horse has been vaccinated for strangles, the horse's health certificate must show the date and method of vaccination. Any horse from a barn that has been exposed to strangles since Dec. 1, 2004, must have written permission from Beasley before shipping to Keeneland, and any shipping since Dec. 1 must be documented.

"We're basically doing what New York is doing," Beasley said.

Beasley said that Keeneland will require certificates of veterinary inspection for horses shipping in from facilities in Kentucky as well as from out of state, a practice, Asher said, that Churchill might also adopt for its race meet beginning April 30.

Keeneland will hold an informational session at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in the track kitchen's recreation room to give horsemen the opportunity to discuss strangles, its containment, and its prevention with Kentucky equine veterinary officials.

In south Florida, trainer Vickie Foley said she was phoned late Monday afternoon by Churchill director of stalls Mike Hargrave, requesting that she not ship her stable from Gulfstream to Churchill until further notice. Foley said Hargrave informed her that he had been individually contacting other trainers with the same message. Foley had intended to ship her horses Thursday.

At the Palm Meadows training center near Boynton Beach, Fla., a heated verbal exchange early Tuesday between trainers Dale Romans and Randy Schulhofer illustrated the tension that the strangles outbreak has created on the backside. It was the first day back at the barn for Romans following his trip to the Middle East, where he won the $6 million Dubai World Cup last Saturday with Roses in May. Romans had horses test positive for strangles at Churchill and the Trackside training center, and, more recently, at Palm Meadows.

The two traded loud and angry accusations. Schulhofer, who is stabled next to Romans, had restrictions placed on the training of his horses after one of them exhibited symptoms of the disease. Schulhofer wanted to leave Palm Meadows for New York last weekend but was prevented from doing so when New York officials announced they would not allow horses to ship from south Florida until Saturday at the earliest.

"You don't understand," Schulhofer said to Romans. "You are putting me out of business."

- additional reporting by Marty McGee, Jay Privman, and Mike Welsch