Flying horses: How foreign race horses get to Churchill Downs [Breeders' Cup]

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This article appeared in the November 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.

You can fit 45 Thoroughbreds on a DC-8. But horses crossing an ocean to race in the Breeders’ Cup have more legroom than some of the fans who flew into Louisville this week.

“They travel first-class,” says Chris Santarelli with a chuckle. “They each want their own stall.” Santarelli is the treasurer of Mersant International Ltd., the official transport coordinator for the Breeders’ Cup. For 25 years the company has coordinated horse travel for the championships. A DC-8 carrying Cup horses holds no more than 13 or 14 contestants, and each travels with a personal attendant.

Even horses need a passport. The equine document looks a lot like the one you carry — until you open it. Inside are two pages of coloring-book-like line drawings where owners mark the horse’s identifying features. The passport also shows the animal’s inoculation record.

Once in the U.S., even the classiest equine can’t put hoof to American soil until it reaches one of three quarantine tents at Churchill Downs. There, the animals hang out for 42 hours, waiting for blood-test results that show them clear of four pathogens: the bacteria that causes glanders (an often-fatal respiratory disease that can be transmitted to other horses and humans), the tick-borne protozoan that causes piroplasmosis, (a malaria-like parasitic disease),  a virus that causes equine infectious anemia,  and a venereal disease called dourine,  also caused by a single-celled protozoan.

No horse leaves quarantine until it shows a normal temperature during the last 24 hours of its stay. Actually the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows the horses to show a temperature of 101.5,  just a little north of normal,  says Dr. Ellen Buck, an equine import specialist with the USDA’s National Center for Import and Export.

Most Thoroughbreds coming in for the Cup are frequent fliers, unlikely to get very excited by air travel. Goldikova,  twice winner of the Breeders’ Cup Mile — and expected to try for a hat-trick this year — was pretty blasé about yet another jet ride in 2009. “She was very well-behaved,” says Andrea Branchini, manager of Horse America Inc., one of the companies assisting in Cup transport. “A racehorse is usually a very disciplined animal. He will travel very well. It will go up a ramp. It will go into a stall on the plane.”

The horses people worry about are the youngsters. “When you have some two-year-olds racing, you do tend to get horses that have never traveled to America. You worry a bit about those horses in flight,” Santerelli says.
Scott Arnold keeps flying horses happy. A flying groom for 31 years, he watches for anything that might upset his temporary charge. Every Breeders’ Cup horse travels with a groom in his stall, and there is always a veterinarian on the plane as well.

“You learn from experience what would set a horse off, and you try to remove that obstacle,” Arnold said. “Whether it’s noise, or a light or a movement — those are real common things that can upset a horse.” Although Arnold must be in his seat for takeoff and landing, he might spend most of the flight at the horse’s head, or dealing with any emergencies. “Horses can flip over in stalls, break their halters, get turned the wrong way, or get sick during a flight,” he says, so grooms are busy giving the horses more room if they need them by moving partitions, or whatever it takes.

“We try to hold them together and get them to the ground,” he says.

Photo: Breeders Cup

About Jenni Laidman
I'm a freelance writer who specializes in science and medicine but is passionate about art. I'm a hell of a cook. I think of white wine as training wheels for people who will graduate to red. I love U of L women's basketball. The best bargain in town is the $3 admission to U of L volleyball. Really exciting stuff.
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