Breeders Cup 2013: Flying European Racehorses Don't Fear Jet Lag, Do Fear Disease

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It's a big week for flying horses. US riders and their horses are lining up at the airport after competing (successfully!) at the Pau 4* event in France. Elite jumping horses are flying in and out of Washington, DC as the Washington International Horse Show ends. Lexington, Kentucky is busy as the Alltech National Horse Show is set to open, and in Columbus, Ohio, the Quarter horses bought and sold and exhibited at the Quarter Horse Congress will be looking for planes home to all corners of the globe.

But no airport has been busier with more valuable horses than the already-busy Los Angeles International Airport in California. And what has most of us scratching our heads is that the Breeders Cup--the World Series of horse racing--is set to begin on Friday and horses are still arriving from Europe as I write this article.

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What chance do these horses have to acclimate after such a long flight?

The answer might be found by scanning the list of entries in the Cup's many races.

There he is. In the Breeders Cup Mile. A horse named "No Jet Lag".

[VIDEOSINGLE type="youtube" keyid="uK2TauBrnD0", width="560", height="344"]
Thanks to Marcie Heacox for catching the exuberant No Jet Lag at just the right moment.

No Jet Lag is a three-year-old gelding born and bred in Kentucky. He began his racing career in Great Britain and now finds himself in the California sunshine. He does not, it seems, suffer from jet lag.

Nor do any of the other horses flying in from Europe.

I might hesitate before I'd bet on one of the South American horses, but there's a good chance they've been here a while. That is, if they've read the research.

Research shows that, unlike humans, horses have no trouble flying around the world. They react to light, not the change in light?and its difference from what it says on the clock. But horses may have problems on long flights between the northern and southern hemispheres, where they are in the same dark or light for extended periods.

The European horses aren't worried about lagging behind in Los Angeles. They are much more concerned with what they might take home with them. That's why the only time they will touch other horses is when they head to the track for their races.

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Most people assume that the foreign horses are housed in the so-called "quarantine barn" at Santa Anita to protect American horses from the potential of diseases they may have brought from Europe.

That's not quite true, although keeping strange horses as separate as possible for as long as possible is never a bad idea. When the horses arrive at LAX, they are met by representatives of the US Department of Agriculture, who escort them to holding barns where they begin their mandatory quarantines and additional testing, if necessary, but Breeders Cup and USDA rules require testing to be done before the horses leave their home nations.

The USDA requires 42 hours before clearance. But the catch here is that the horses that need to fly home right after the races are safer going into isolation--or rather remaining in isolation--so that they are in compliance with the quarantine regulations necessary to re-enter their home countries.

It's a little bit like NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden staying in the transit passenger lounge in the Moscow airport: Santa Anita has its equivalent equine no-man's-land.

The Breeders Cup has never been marred by a serious disease outbreak, although it is held at the time of year when equine herpes virus (EHV) outbreaks often affect US racetracks. Foreign trainers realize the risk they take when shipping a horse overseas; even if a foreign horse isn't sick, it is possible that it could be detained, or refused re-entry, if a track is shutdown for disease, even with the quarantine barn.

Things are a little more casual in California than in some parts of the world. Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand are known for being particularly strict with quarantine procedures.

In 2007, a crippling epidemic of equine influenza in Australia was traced to the equine import quarantine station outside Sydney when four Japanese racehorses are believed to have carried the virus into the quarantine stables.

Last week, a security breach took place at the Werribee import center in Australia, where the British runner Brown Panther was stabled under strict quarantine in preparation for the upcoming Melbourne Cup.

According to multiple news reports, Brown Panther's groom scaled the quarantine center's fence to reach his horse without performing the required showering and inspection details.

Australian racing veterinarian David McKellar explained in an interview on ABC radio, "How it's typically accessed is he has a change of clothes on the inside of the quarantine facility. So the clothes he wears on the outside, he disrobes, he showers in for a minimum of three minutes. And then he goes in through the barrier and puts on clothes to wear inside the facility. Again, on the way out, he changes out of those inside set of clothes, showers out of the facility and puts on his clothes."

The groom must have been in a hurry. For skipping the quarantine protocol, he's been shipped home, with warnings issued that he's lucky not to have been prosecuted.

To learn more:

The Pegasus Factor: Flying Horses Soar Instead of Snore When They Race After Landing