11/09/2001 12:00AM

West Nile at Churchill

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A Thoroughbred stabled at Churchill Downs, who was being treated for laminitis and who was euthanized late last month, apparently was suffering from the deadly West Nile virus, according to a Churchill official, who said the case was brought to his attention on Friday.

Rocket Express, who raced at four different tracks on the Kentucky circuit this year, was euthanized at the Hagyard Davidson McGee equine clinic in Lexington and taken to the University of Kentucky Diagnostic Center for an autopsy. This would be the first case of West Nile at a Kentucky racetrack and would demonstrate that the disease continues to spread southward and westward through the U.S.

Dr. Alex Harthill, attending veterinarian for Rocket Express, said he was informed Thursday that UK scientists had made a preliminary diagnosis of West Nile. According to Harthill, it would be the first known case at a Kentucky track, although isolated cases have surfaced this year in the region, including one in Kentucky involving a Quarter Horse in Bourbon County.

Churchill spokesman John Asher said he consulted at length Friday with Rusty Ford, equine programs manager for the Kentucky State Veterinarians' Office, and that Ford informed him that no measures were necessary "because the weather pattern at this time of year precludes any added exposure" to the virus.

West Nile attacks neurological functions, with death caused by swelling of the brain. Animals infected with the virus generally show lethargic symptoms soon after being infected. West Nile, which is spread primarily through mosquitoes, is not contagious from animal to animal, and therefore government and racing officials said there was no need for a quarantine or lockdown of horses at Churchill.

Rocket Express, a 2-year-old Supremo colt owned by Tom Moore and trained by Bob Holthus, raced six times, winning once and earning just over $35,000. His last start resulted in a third-place finish in an Oct. 11 turf allowance at Keeneland.

"He was stabled the whole year here," said Holthus. "He'd only leave the day of, or the day before, to run at another track."

Harthill, who also serves as president of the Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said he was treating Rocket Express for laminitis before the horse was shipped to Hagyard Davidson McGee, and "only coincidentally did we discover that he [might have] had West Nile. The only good news for horsemen in this case is that this is not mosquito season."

Asher said Ford informed him that official release of test results by UK would not be available for seven to 10 days. Bernie Hettel, executive director of the Kentucky Racing Commission, said such a delay is typical.

Since West Nile virus was initially diagnosed in the Northeast U.S. in 1999, caretakers of animals throughout the East, South, and Midwest have been on alert. Problems persist in warm-weather areas such as Florida, where mosquitoes flourish. The virus has surfaced in about 20 states, and scientists predict it may reach Central America and California by early next year.

Holthus said he believes West Nile is "spreading quickly" and that next year the problem could be considerably more daunting for horsemen.