05/26/2005 12:00AM

Strangles discovered in Delaware


State veterinarians in Delaware have isolated a horse who has tested positive for strangles, an upper respiratory disease that is highly contagious although rarely fatal. The positive test sent repercussions along the Northeastern seaboard, including at Belmont Park, where horses from Delaware are being temporarily banned from the track grounds.

John Wayne, the executive director of the Delaware Racing Commission, said state veterinarians had diagnosed the strangles case on Wednesday, and within 30 minutes, had transferred the horse to an isolation barn and disinfected its stall. Wayne said that no other horses in the 50-stall barn had shown symptoms of the disease, and that racing officials were confident the case was isolated.

"Our vets were right on top of it," Wayne said. "We've isolated the horse, we've cleaned and disinfected the stall, we've put precautions in place, and we have 24-7 security."

The racing commission has not established any restrictions on horses shipping into or out of Delaware Park because of the strangles case, Wayne said. Under state Department of Agriculture rules, the infected horse will not be identified, nor will the trainer or owner of the horse, Wayne said.

Delaware Park racing officials and veterinarians did not return phone calls requesting comment on the strangles case on Thursday, a dark day at the track.

Strangles, a bacterial infection of the respiratory system caused by Streptococcus equi, typically causes a fever, nasal discharge, and swollen lymph nodes. Though rarely fatal, the disease is highly contagious and spreads through a horse's nasal discharge, which can contaminate equipment and the immediate area around a horse as long as three weeks after the initial infection.

Racetracks near Delaware Park reacted to the new positive by banning Delaware Park horses from the grounds, expanding existing rules that seek to keep infected horses off their grounds, or pledging to monitor the cases.

Belmont Park, on its overnight sheet released Thursday night, said horses from Delaware would be restricted from coming on to the grounds. However, the overnight stated that if no additional cases were diagnosed, Delaware Park horses would be allowed back on the grounds beginning June 6 if they tested negative for the disease.

John Heims, a spokesman for Monmouth Park in New Jersey, said that Monmouth will now require all ship-ins to be certified as being free of exposure to the strangles virus. That restriction had previously been limited to horses shipping in from Florida and Kentucky, where strangles cases had emerged earlier this year.

Lou Raffetto, the chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, said the track is not expecting to enforce any restrictions on Delaware ship-ins because of the belief that the case was isolated.

"We're going to monitor everything very closely, and if we have any new cases, obviously, we will take a closer look at it," Raffetto said.

Delaware has become the fourth Thoroughbred racetrack or training center this year to have a horse test positive for strangles. Earlier this year, horses at Churchill Downs's Trackside training center tested positive for strangles. Soon thereafter an outbreak of strangles was identified at Palm Meadows training center in Florida. Last week, Indiana Downs cancelled racing for one night after two horses believed to have the disease were transferred off the grounds.

Because of the incidents earlier this year, Delaware regulators had put in place new precautions for outbreaks of strangles, including the designation of an isolation barn and a review of the state's quarantine procedures, according to state veterinarian Dr. Wesley Towers.

The horse who tested positive at Delaware had been on the racetrack's grounds for 45 days after shipping in from Penn National Race Course in Pennsylvania, Wayne said. Investigators have not yet determined how the horse contracted the disease, he said.