08/22/2002 11:00PM

No link found in Pletcher pair deaths


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Trainer Todd Pletcher and his veterinarian on Friday said they may never know the exact reasons why two of Pletcher's horses died within eight days of each other, or if the deaths are even related.

Pletcher lost two top horses when Freedom's Daughter, a stakes winning 2-year-old filly, died on Aug. 12 because of a disease called colitis X, Aand Warners, a talented 3-year-old colt, died on Aug. 20 from laminitis.

Pletcher and Dr. Jim Hunt have ruled out that the colic suffered by Whitney winner Left Bank on Aug. 10 was related to the other two illnesses.

"The colic that Left Bank had was due to complications of the colic surgery he had three years ago," said Pletcher, who noted that Left Bank remains in a Massachusetts clinic until transportation can be arranged to ship him to Ashford Stud in Kentucky.

Meanwhile, Pletcher plans to send samples of the soil and grass behind his barn to the equine laboratory at Cornell University to see if a contaminant could have infected the two horses while they were grazing. However, Pletcher said several of his horses have grazed in the same area, and did not get sick.

"The only possibility that we've come up with is that possibly they picked up something from grazing here," Pletcher said. "But all 30 horses here were being fed from the same feed, eating the same hay, bedded on the same straw, and drinking from the same water source. You would think if something was contaminated that it would affect more than two horses. The vets that have looked at both of these horses don't even know if the two were dealing with the same illness."

Said Hunt: "There's a possibility they are related, it's a possibility they are not related. The two courses [of illness] were pretty different."

According to Pletcher, Freedom's Daughter spiked a fever then got diarrhea. Her condition deteriorated quickly into a severe intestinal infection. Warners did not spike a fever before leaving the barn, but did have diarrhea. While he became stable, laminitis set in.

Because Freedom's Daughter died so quickly, Pletcher and Hunt acted fast when Warners got sick. He was sent to the Hunters Holly clinic just off the Saratoga grounds within an hour of first ailing.

Pletcher and Hunt believe the aggressive manner in which they attacked Warners disease may have helped to prolong his life. But, the preventive treatments they used for laminitis did not help.

"The most frustrating thing for me is that in both of these cases, once they got whatever they got it was irreversible," Pletcher said. "It didn't matter what we did, basically there was no way out."

A preliminary autopsy on Freedom's Daughter, who died just 36 hours after she was initially diagnosed with a temperature, was inconclusive, according to Hunt. The cause of death is listed as colitis X, but even Hunt said that means it's hard to pinpoint.

"We may never know what caused that horse to die," Hunt said. "We've been baffled for years and years [by colitis X. We don't know why they go downhill so fast. It must be some very aggressive bacteria, virus, or toxins that rages their gut walls."

Hunt said a preliminary autopsy on Warners could only rule out salmonella as a cause of death. Hunt said further tests may be taken.

Eugene Melnyk owns Warners, whom he purchased for $1.05 million. As soon as Warners got sick, Melnyk requested that the majority of his horses stabled at Saratoga be shipped to Pletcher's Belmont Park stable.

Pletcher said since Warners got sick, he has stopped grazing all of his horses.

"We're extra careful. We do all the right things in terms of vaccinating our horses, monitoring their temperatures twice daily," he said. "To me, the most frustrating part is not knowing exactly what caused this. It's scary in its own right to not know what caused it; but that we weren't able to reverse it once it did hit was very frustrating."

According to Hunt, horses died at Saratoga in 2001 because of Potomac Horse Fever and in 2000 because of West Nile Virus. "I think it's coincidental that this just happened and that it happened in the same barn," Hunt said. "Every year we lose horses up here and it's hard to explain."