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MIAMI (Reuters) - A Florida pharmacy said on Thursday it had incorrectly mixed a medication given to 21 polo horses that died this week, as investigators awaited the result of toxicology tests that could reveal what killed them.
The horses, which belonged to the Venezuelan Lechuza Caracas polo team, collapsed with respiratory problems at the U.S. Open Polo Championship in Wellington, Florida, on Sunday. Local police and the state's Department of Agriculture launched an investigation to determine if a crime had been committed.
Franck's Pharmacy of Ocala, Florida, said it had prepared a medication used to treat the 21 horses on the order of a veterinarian.
After the horses died, an internal investigation found "the strength of an ingredient in the medication was incorrect," Franck's chief operations officer Jennifer Beckett said in a statement. She did not name the medication or the ingredient.
"We extend our most sincere condolences to the horses' owners, the Lechuza Polo team and the members of the United States Polo Association," the statement said. "We share their grief and sadness."
Lechuza's team captain, Juan Martin Nero, told an Argentine newspaper that a vitamin supplement given to the horses probably caused their deaths.
The supplement, Biodyl, is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States.
However, the Lechuza team said in a statement issued on Thursday that Biodyl was not the issue. Rather, the team said, a veterinarian wrote a prescription for a Biodyl substitute containing vitamin B, potassium, magnesium and selenium.
"This compound was prepared in the State of Florida by a compounding pharmacy," the statement said. "Only the horses treated with the compound became sick and died within three hours of treatment. The horses that were not treated remain healthy and normal."
The results of an initial round of toxicology tests could be known by week's end, but if they do not hold an answer, more tests might have to be done, said Terence McElroy, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture.
Necropsies on the dead horses found internal haemorrhaging but that was not considered significant in light of the manner in which the horses died, "gasping for air and thrashing about," McElroy said.
"What was the underlying cause of the respiratory difficulty?" he said. "That's still the 64,000-dollar question."
McElroy said state investigators had seen reports of the pharmacy's statement but could not comment further on an ongoing investigation.
The horses were valued at up to $100,000 (67,937 pounds) each and belonged to Lechuza Caracas owner Victor Vargas, a wealthy Venezuelan businessman and president of the Venezuelan Banking Association.
The U.S. Open Polo Championship planned a memorial ceremony for the horses on Thursday during a match at the International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington.
One of the host club's sponsors is Allen Stanford, the Texas billionaire whose financial empire collapsed this year when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission accused him of running a Ponzi scheme.
Reporting by Jim Loney; editing by Todd Eastham