Dale Bennett, a horse trainer, keeps his face set tight. Bennett grew up on the racetrack. His father, Gerald, still trains. After so many years, Bennett’s not a person to let emotions get wrapped around a horse. Yet on Nov. 16, as Bennett sat in his barn office at Hawthorne Race Course, tears crept into the corners of his eyes.
The morning before, a 2-year-old filly in his care, Ginger and Spice, had fallen ill. There was little warning. Ginger and Spice – an unraced $150,000 sales purchase; a future stakes horse in Bennett’s mind – ran a temperature and then began losing control of her body. Her hind legs crossed. Her gaze grew distant.
“She looked like she was in a coma,” Bennett said.
Once the serious symptoms arose, Bennett knew all too well what was happening. On Oct. 14, in Barn A at Hawthorne, about a quarter-mile to the west of Bennett’s stalls in Barn E, horses trained by Jim DiVito began getting sick, too – running fevers, then losing coordination. Two of them died. Veterinarians guessed from the start what was afoot: Equine herpesvirus. Days later, tests confirmed the presence of the disease, often referred to as EHV-1. When the virus infected Ginger and Spice, it killed her the same morning that Bennett first saw serious symptoms.
Hawthorne still lies firmly in the grip of this highly contagious disease. When the virus spread from Barn A to another building, Barn C, on Oct. 24, the entire track was placed under quarantine by the Illinois Department of Agriculture. No horses could leave the grounds – not that other racing jurisdictions would consider taking them. The virus has since been diagnosed in horses in barns E, F, 8, and 9. Barn F sits about a quarter-mile east of Barn A, the original infection site. At this point, it’s a fair guess that almost every horse at Hawthorne has been exposed to the EHV-1 virus. Horsemen are frightened, confused, and suspicious.
“I just don’t know what to do right now,” Bennett said the day after the filly died. “I’m trying to figure everything out.”
The day Ginger and Spice got sick, many horsemen – Bennett among them – began calling for a halt of the race meet, which ends Dec. 31, worried that the spread of the virus was out of control. The continued mingling of horses during training and racing, they say, has allowed the virus to spread among Hawthorne’s equine population. EHV-1 can be spread through airborne exposure, but more common are contact infections: horses touching each other, or a horse coming into contact with something or someone that has already come into contact with the virus.
Claiming has continued, with claimed horses, as usual, taking up residence in their new connections’ barns, possibly bringing the virus with them. The virus can live in air for up to seven days under normal conditions, longer if conditions are ideal. A horse named Hogy was claimed Nov. 1 from trainer Joel Berndt, who has had the virus in his barn. Hogy was transferred to the string of trainer Scott Becker. Becker’s horses reside on the other side of barn 9, where two weeks later a horse named Campo Joti displayed neurologic symptoms and tested positive for EHV-1.
The level of security in barns with afflicted horses has been questioned, as have efforts to educate stable employees on common-sense techniques – washing hands, cleaning equipment, not going from barn to barn – that might have helped quash the virus’s spread.
Those in charge of responding to the outbreak, starting with the Illinois Department of Agriculture, have determined that the meet can continue. Dr. Dawn Folker-Calderon, the state-employed veterinarian at Hawthorne, has overseen the response. Folker-Calderon, who regularly communicates with Dr. Mark Ernst, the chief veterinarian for the Illinois Department of Agriculture, has from the first day attempted to follow protocols meant to contain the virus’s spread, isolating animals who have gotten sick or tested positive for the disease. Testing is performed with nasal swabs or by drawing blood.
Keeping horses in closed barns during a cessation in the race meet, Folker-Calderon has said, could cause stress from inactivity, leaving them more vulnerable to the virus. Infections can occur through air, too, and won’t stay out of a barn just because its doors are closed. And claimed horses changing barns are presumed not to be infected.
“Trainers should be racing healthy horses, so this should not be an issue,” Folker-Calderon said Monday in a conference call organized by the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Asssociation.
Hawthorne assistant general manager Jim Miller said on the conference call that the track had posted regular updates on the disease’s progress while issuing notices outlining best practices for disease containment. There were limits, he said, to the actions that Hawthorne could take.
“We’re not a hospital here. This is a backstretch of a racetrack. There will be some movement that takes place,” said Miller.
Since the first confirmed case of EHV-1, Hawthorne has been disinfecting its starting gate and paddock while racing is being conducted. Pony people are supposed to use disinfectant before coming into contact with racehorses. All the pony horses at Hawthorne have tested negative for the virus, Miller said. Hawthorne has distributed disinfecting materials for weeks and has regularly posted information about the virus and advice on how stable employees can contain it. On Sunday, the ITHA – which also has started supplying disinfectants – finally had an organized meeting, conducted in English and Spanish, on how best to maintain a clean stable environment and help ward off the disease.
Officials sought to contrast the emotionally charged atmosphere that pervaded the backstretch after the Barn E outbreak with the raw numbers of the disease’s toll. While a large swath of the equine population has displayed minor symptoms, only 10 cases like the ones that killed Ginger and Spice and the two Divito horses have been reported among the 1,900 horses stuck at Hawthorne, and of those, only eight have been confirmed as EHV-1.
“That’s three deaths too many, but our numbers are really not that bad,” said Dr. Steven Seabaugh, the track veterinarian who is employed by Hawthorne.
Dr. Seabaugh and Dr. Folker-Calderon have worked with the many private vets on the backstretch, trying to monitor and minimize the virus’s spread. The nuts and bolts of biosecurity controls, though, are being carried out by the Hawthorne security staff, a group lacking experience in such activity. While the situation is being monitored at the state government level, no resources – human or capital - have been forthcoming. And meanwhile, for horsemen, there is no exit – not from the premises, not from the anxiety. You take your horses’ temperature twice a day and hope for the best.
“The Dormant Dragon” – that’s how the disease is described in a major report on EHV-1 in 2007 from the Center for Equine Health at the University of California-Davis. The virus can live undetected in a horse for years, suddenly shedding out and infecting other horses. Periods of stress in a horse might cause the disease to spring back into activity – with “might” being the operative word. No one has quite figured out why a long period of dormancy ends.
Most horses who catch the bug won’t develop anything more than a moderate fever, perhaps with some nasal discharge or redness around their eyes. A few, though, are afflicted with the neurological symptoms that struck Ginger and Spice, and the results can be awful. The mortality rate from neurological EHV-1 victims is high, on the order of 30 to 40 percent. Worse, there is no vaccine that protects an animal against this strain of the virus.
The virus is strange, even by viral standards. There is a so-called wild strain of the EHV-1 virus, and there is a mutant strain. The virus can enter its host, the horse, as the non-neuropathic variety, and once there, transform itself into the neuropathic version. Researchers have isolated the gene that mutates during this process, but they don’t know why or how the gene mutates. On the other hand, a horse can contract the neuropathic strain of the virus and never even get a fever.
“It’s unique,” said Dr. Nic Pusterla, a professor at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine who has extensively studied EHV-1 and monitored many outbreaks. “The only thing at all like it are other herpes viruses.”
The disease is considered an emerging virus by equine virologists and epidemiologists. Between 1970 and 2000, the mutant strain of the virus caused 19 recorded outbreaks in the United States and United Kingdom, according to information provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Between 2000 and 2005, the mutant strain of the virus was responsible for 30 outbreaks. Part of that spike can be attributed to increased reporting, but the virus also appears to somehow have gained force.
EHV-1 has regularly popped up at racetracks from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There were cases at Beulah Park in Ohio during the winter of 2010–11. Fair Grounds had a barn under quarantine in January 2009, and Calder Race Course in Florida experienced a flare-up in December of that year. Churchill Downs had cases in 2007, and during the winter of 2006-2007, the virus lingered at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky. Typically, racetrack outbreaks are contained in a barn or two, and rarely has the disease spread so widely among a population as has happened at Hawthorne.
“Sometimes you get fortunate that an outbreak is confined to a specific barn, but once you reach the level where it’s showing its ugly face everywhere, it’s random what will happen,” Pusterla said. “Every single horse has probably been exposed. The good thing with herpes, it comes in, it does the damage, it gets out. In general, these outbreaks are contained within three weeks.”
For 18 days there was little visual evidence of EHV-1 at Hawthorne. After the Barn C outbreak, the situation appeared to be quieting. As recently as Tuesday, Nov. 13, Hawthorne officials, regulatory veterinarians, and trainers eagerly awaiting permission to depart for winter quarters had started counting off the days. Then Ginger and Spice went neurologic. An effort was made to walk the filly some 150 yards to the isolation area for neurologically afflicted horses that has been set up in Barn K-2, a long, low-slung building along the eastern border of the Hawthorne property. Ginger and Spice didn’t make it. She fell down in the road and had to be euthanized, graphic evidence of the virus’s work.
“I was one of the ones saying we should keep going,” said Steve Manley, the trainer of a filly named Campo Joti. Manley said the filly was virtually unable to move, and he was in the process of deciding whether to risk moving the filly to an isolation unit.
“But now that I had one,” Manley said, “I think they should shut this down.”
The calls to shut the meet down, the growing volume of criticism, and another dead horse took their toll on Dr. Folker-Calderon, the state vet. On Thursday, the day after the death in the Bennett barn, she struggled with her emotions while talking about Hawthorne’s recent turn for the worse. Folker-Calderon has been the state vet in Chicago for about a year and started working at the track in 2006. Like all veterinarians, she has had basic training in epidemiology, but nothing in her background had fully prepared her to run point for a containment effort of an EHV-1 outbreak.
“You can’t do simulations of this, and every outbreak is different,” Folker-Calderon said. “There’s no cookie-cutter recipe for handling it.”
Folker-Calderon said she had barely slept the night after Ginger and Spice’s death. “That was a pretty traumatic event, it really was, and I feel that.”
When the virus first afflicted Barn A, which houses horses trained by DiVito, Roger Brueggemann, Mickey Goldfine, and Joe Kasperski, the building quickly was quarantined. A guard was stationed at the entrance, movement in and out was restricted, and people working in the barn were required to wear protective suits and disinfect upon leaving. But even then, some horsemen said, not everyone strictly adhered to policy: One trainer was seen walking through the stable area wearing his white protective suit.
When the virus jumped to Barn C, it changed everything. Besides putting the whole track in quarantine, it occasioned the beginning of attempts to move and isolate horses who had shown neurologic symptoms or who had tested positive for EHV-1. Barn 8 was first set up as an isolation unit, with the K-2 isolation area coming later. Bennett and others, though, complained that for a time there was lax security in K-2, that people could pass into and out of the barn without monitoring. Also, horses in Bennett’s barn trained by Mike Reavis exercised with the general population the day after Ginger and Spice as well as a Reavis horse went neurologic.
The quarantine will go on for 28 days after the last neurologically symptomatic horse is reported. And for now, the meet goes on. The bulk of horses train during regular hours, with a set of animals who have been exposed to the virus but tested negative allowed to exercise alone later in the morning. Another set of horses will soon join that special training group, having twice tested negative for the disease.
No one is certain how the virus infiltrated Hawthorne. Many horsemen have referenced the fact that the Hawthorne backstretch, usually empty during non-racing months, was privately leased this summer by the Midwest Thoroughbreds operation of Rich and Karen Papiese, with many of the horses trained by Roger Brueggemann housed in Barn A, the first place EHV-1 appeared. But Dr. Seabaugh, the association vet, said there was no connection between summer stabling and the outbreak. The best guess, Seabaugh said, is that a small group of horses shipped to Hawthorne from New York carried the virus into Barn A sometime in early fall. But how the virus got here, at this point, is a question for epidemiologists – a moot point.
“Forty years in this business, I’ve never had to deal with anything like this,” said trainer Jim DiVito, whose horses were at ground zero of the outbreak and whose Hawthorne stock remains barred from racing. “I don’t know what you do with this kind of stuff. I lost horses. I’m sitting here losing money, and the people who own the horses are losing money. It’s a bad deal over there. That’s all I can tell you.”