05/21/2001 12:00AM

Hanging in there in the face of disaster


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It must have been a grim Mother's Day in Kentucky. Ravaged by disease, the cradle of the North American Thoroughbred business is reeling from a syndrome that has been killing hundreds of early fetuses and, to a lesser extent, foals in late gestation.

To those of us who rarely gets our hands dirty, this is a compelling story of both economic and psychological impact. For anyone who works with mares and foals - mothers and their children - it is an unprecedented catastrophe, an indiscriminate plague of Biblical proportions.

The cause has been traced apparently to the pastures, which means there is no practical escape. Toxicological experts in both the agricultural and veterinary sciences have been marshalled. Kentucky legislators have appealed for help to the United States Department of Agriculture. In meantime, people on farms all over the region awaken each day hoping the ordeal is over, but fearing the worst.

One of them is Alice Chandler, the third-generation horsewoman and owner of Mill Ridge Farm in the heart of Lexington's Thoroughbred country. As a trainer, breeder, owner, racing commissioner and lifelong patron of the game, there are few challenges Chandler has failed to meet. She is determined to get through this one, as well.

"I'm holding up, because I've got a philosophy that there's not a thing you can do about this," Chandler said last weekend, as the crises continued to spread.

"This is going to sound real hard-nosed, but it's nobody's fault," she went on. "There's nothing we can do about it. It's not an infectious disease. There is no reason to close us down. It's just that we're our own worst enemy at the moment. You can't pull them off the grass. There's no place to put them. I don't have enough blacktop.

"Besides," she added, "if you beat yourself up over it, you're not going to be as effective over the next five weeks while trying to get them back in foal."

As of last weekend, the count of reported lost foals in Kentucky had surpassed 400.

"We are in line with what everyone else is losing," Chandler said. "It's a percentage of mares, and it's not pretty. I don't think it has spared too many people."

Mill Ridge was expecting 135 foal births this year. From 130, only two were dead.

"There are only five mares left to foal, so hopefully we'll be all right," Chandler said. "What we're seeing now is the dead fetuses."

In practical terms, a breeder with a mare who just lost a two-month old fetus has a narrow window of opportunity to get that mare in foal again - if the mare is healthy, and if she comes into a normal cycle, and if the economic risk of a late foal is worth it.

"I'm not going to breed past my usual time," Chandler said. "If you do get a mare in foal late, you get that late foal, then an empty year the next year. So you've got a double disaster dip. I hope my people more or less do the same."

Chandler's "people" include 57 clients who keep their mares and foals at Mill Ridge. Among them are The Thoroughbred Corp. of Ahmed Salman, owner of beaten Derby favorite Point Given. Chandler has had to inform some clients that their mares have aborted at 60 days when they were thought to be in healthy gestation.

"The only down side to having a farm is having to make that call," Chandler said.

Normally, by mid-May, a farm has survived the pressure of the breeding season. The farm staff spends most of the time foaling as well as monitoring mares who have been confirmed in foal for the following season. This year, the crisis has thrown traditional schedules to the wind.

"I don't know how my crew does it," Chandler said. "They're fabulous. The vets are all so busy. We've been checking about 30 mares a day all week long. And now we've got to start to [breed mares] again, and all that stuff."

In addition, it has been back to school for many people in the breeding industry.

"Some of us at an ungodly age!" Chandler said. She now knows more about alkaloid toxins than she ever dreamed imaginable.

"I'm beginning to think now that it might be nitrogen," Chandler said, referring to a common component of pasture fertilizer. "That seems to be the prevalent theory at the moment, based on a poll they took of people who fertilized last fall. I'm not a nitrogen fan. I feel we get enough of it from the lightning and the thunder storms we have. They say in the face of the freeze we had on the 17th of April, the nitrogen can cause real havoc."

Whatever the cause, lessons will be learned. Right now, the hard work is being done with the hundreds of mares who lost those tiny, growing Thoroughbreds.

"It's going to be a real test. But so far my people haven't flinched," Chandler said. "Tell people, Don't worry, this is going to end."