05/18/2005 12:00AM

Suspected herpes causes quarantine

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Kentucky Department of Agriculture has quarantined three barns at Churchill Downs, fearing an outbreak of neurologic equine herpes, a potentially fatal virus that causes upper respiratory problems and loss of coordination.

The quarantine order - which confines horses to their barns and prohibits them from being shipped, trained, or raced - directly affects more than 100 horses, including Kentucky Derby fourth-place finisher Don't Get Mad, the lone horse that trainer Ron Ellis has based at Churchill Downs. Other quarantined horses include those trained by Ronny Werner, Steve Asmussen, Paul McGee, and Bill Cesare.

Only horses trained by Asmussen, Cesare, and Werner have shown symptoms of the virus, state officials said. The other trainers share barns with trainers who have affected horses.

Two horses that were presumed to have severe cases of the virus have been euthanized, said Dr. Robert Stout, Kentucky's state veterinarian. According to state officials, at least three or four others have shown complications that go beyond cold-like symptoms.

"While test results have not yet confirmed it, clinical signs observed in several horses and postmortem results on two horses indicate that we are dealing with equine herpes virus," said Stout. "Equine herpes virus is contagious, so our efforts are now focused on containing the virus."

The quarantine order did not affect the shipping of Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo or any of the Churchill Downs-based horses that boarded a Wednesday plane to Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes. But Second of June, entered in Friday's Pimlico Special, and Bwana Charlie, who had been pointed for Saturday's Maryland Breeders' Cup at Pimlico, were restricted from leaving their Churchill Downs barns. Second of June is trained by Cesare, and Bwana Charlie by Asmussen.

The herpes diagnosis comes only months after an outbreak of strangles, a disease that also causes respiratory ailments, occurred at Churchill Downs in late 2004 and at the Churchill Downs Trackside training facility in early 2005.

Cesare, who chose to humanely destroy an unraced 2-year-old that could not stand up and was believed by state officials to be suffering from the virus, expressed disappointment Wednesday morning at being unable to ship Second of June to Pimlico. According to Cesare, an autopsy performed by the state could not definitely state that his ill horse had herpes.

"I think they're just being sensitive because of the strangles," he said.

Stout said that a clear diagnosis is difficult with equine herpes, but that the affected horses at Churchill Downs show symptoms of the virus.

The quarantine restrictions will be evaluated on a day-to-day basis, state officials said. McGee and other affected trainers said they would like to see special training hours put in place for quarantined stables.

In a meeting with horsemen Wednesday morning, Stout and Department of Agriculture representative Rusty Ford told horsemen that the virus can be transmitted in horse-to-horse contact in much the same way that a cold can be transferred among humans. They also noted that a horse could potentially carry the virus before showing signs of distress. They therefore could not ensure that the presumed herpes virus had not spread beyond the quarantined barns.

The state and the track have opted to follow many of the precautions it instituted during the strangles outbreak, which includes requiring health certificates and temperature readings from ship-ins. The horse identifier and gate crew will wear gloves to limit transferring the disease among horses, and testing for alkalizing agents will be suspended to lessen exposure, Churchill Downs president Steve Sexton said.

Stout told horsemen they were to report any horse with a temperature of 101 degrees or higher.

The source of the infection in the three barns at Churchill Downs has not been determined, Stout said. The two euthanized horses, one from Cesare and another from trainer Ronny Werner's stable, were unraced 2-year-olds purchased at Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. auctions in Florida this spring, their trainers said. Asmussen, whose barn has been afflicted with several lesser cases, acknowledged that many of his young horses have come from Ocala.

Jay Friedman, a spokesman for OBS, had no comment beyond saying that they want to examine the history of the euthanized horses. State officials would not say that a link to the virus could be traced to Ocala.

Asmussen declined to reveal which of his horses were exhibiting symptoms of equine herpes, nor would Stout. Asmussen has stabled many of his better stakes horses at Churchill Downs this meet, including Grade 1 winners Summerly and Lady Tak.

Although Asmussen's Churchill Downs-based horses are currently prohibited from training and racing, he and other affected trainers can run horses at Churchill that are based at other tracks, such as Keeneland. These horses are restricted from shipping into the Churchill Downs barns of their trainers.

The most recent outbreak of equine neurologic herpes at a Kentucky racetrack occurred at Turfway Park in March 2003, just before the running of the Lane's End Stakes, the track's major prep for the Kentucky Derby. One barn was placed under quarantine at Turfway, and the track instituted similar precautionary measures. The race was not significantly disrupted, nor were the closing weeks of the Turfway meet.