03/13/2003 1:00AM

Spring brings West Nile-MRLS worry


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Spring officially arrives next week, and with it come renewed concerns about West Nile virus. The virus, which causes encephalitis in both humans and horses, killed 256 people in the United States last year. It also infected 14,717 horses, some fatally, as it spread across the nation.

Thoroughbred breeders were especially alarmed last month when researchers at the University of Kentucky's Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center in Lexington announced that preliminary testing had suggested a potential link between West Nile and some equine abortions.

The potential West Nile-infected fetuses are not thought to be related to abortions caused by mare reproductive loss syndrome, an unidentified disease that caused several thousand equine abortions starting in 2001.

Testing to confirm a potential link between West Nile and equine abortion is still underway, but lab pathologist Dr. Lenn Harrison said the process has been slower than expected, in large measure because of limited availability of testing materials.

"The subject hasn't been dropped," Harrison said. "But it's not an easy case. To get the reagents and the testing materials together is a chore in itself. The materials we need to do the additional testing are in limited supply, because the Centers for Disease Control controls them."

The lab made its preliminary discovery from a test called PCR, which is less precise than the test it would like to use for confirmation, a virus neutralization test that confirms the presence of antibodies to West Nile. For that test the lab needs to use live West Nile virus, so the CDC exercises strict control. Compounding the difficulty is the fact that few labs are equipped to handle a live virus like West Nile that can be deadly to humans. The LDDC does not have that capability.

In the meantime, Harrison said, the researchers have run the PCR tests on the suspected West Nile-infected tissue a second time and got the same positive results.

"Now, we're talking to scientists at other institutions who are working on West Nile virus to help us identify the significance of these results," Harrison said. "We're reaching out to other groups to see if we can engage in some cooperative research.

"Both MRLS and this are beasts to deal with," he added. "They're not your 'gee-whiz, shake a few tubes and answer it' kind of problems."

Harrison emphasized that there is no evidence that the West Nile vaccine, which debuted last year under a provisional license, has contributed to the abortions.

"If anything, use of the vaccine is supported by what we've found so far," he said. "Things might have been worse without it."

Dr. Bill Bernard of Rood and Riddle equine hospital agreed that horsemen should continue to use the vaccine. Meanwhile, the research will continue.

"We're still waiting to see how it will play out in terms of the reality of West Nile virus playing a role in equine abortion," Bernard said. "We still have to combine cause and effect."

FitzGerald/Keogh breakup

Jim FitzGerald and James Keogh, who formed the successful consignment company FitzGerald/Keogh Agency four years ago, have dissolved their partnership to pursue individual interests.

A letter to the agency's clients this week called the split "amicable" and said both men decided to return to their own operations due in part to the departure of their sales coordinator, Julia Rice, and to "a change of direction of our lives."

Before forming the FitzGerald/ Keogh agency, James Keogh sold horses under the Grovendale banner and FitzGerald operated as Knockgriffin Farm. When they joined forces, the pair quickly rose to the top echelon of sellers, with such auction splashes as $2.6 million Beautiful Bid; $2 million Leonila (Ire); and $2 million Luminous Beauty.

The agency's office will remain open until March 28.

Win free season to Siberian Summer

When California-based breeder Michael Powers was 12 years old, another breeder, the late Cecilia DeMille Harper, offered him the chance of a lifetime - a free season to her stallion Short Jacket for Powers's mare.

Now, Powers wants to pass the favor along. He is offering a free season to his stallion Siberian Summer, sire of stakes winner Siberland, to one student a year. Powers said the offer is open to would-be breeders age 21 and younger. Applicants must submit a written presentation to Powers about their mare's pedigree, why the pedigree fits with Siberian Summer, and how they intend to care for and use the resulting foal. Powers said he may select more than one winner each year.

"I want to encourage people to think through their matings and why the mare should be bred at all," Powers said. "I'd like this to be a teaching exercise for a young person who is interested in breeding but might not have the wherewithal to buy a season. This can help them come to grips with the real-life, practical aspects of Thoroughbred breeding."

Powers will accept inquiries and submissions through Creston Farms in Creston, Calif., where Siberian Summer stands for $5,000.

'Dixie,' Arromanches to stud

Joseph "Guy" Vachon's Solar View Raceland in Nuevo, Calif., has announced that it will stand Moms From Dixie for the horse's initial season at stud. Moms From Dixie, a 5-year-old son of Dixieland Band and the Mr. Prospector mare Love From Mom, is a half-brother to Sea of Secrets. Moms From Dixie, who retires after three starts because of injury, will stand for $1,500.E Arromanches, a stakes-placed winner by Relaunch, has entered stud at Cyndy O'Bannon's Beau Ridge Farm in Bucker Hill, West Virginia. Arromanches, a 10-year-old horse out of stakes winner Perfect Roux (Sauce Boat), won 31 of his 78 career starts and finished third in the 1998 Paumonok Handicap at Aqueduct. He retires from the track with earnings of $807,925 and will stand for $500.