Frequent Flyers – Europeans Take Aim at the Breeders Cup
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Frequent Flyers – Europeans Take Aim at the Breeders Cup
by Terry Conway - November 2010

When super-mare Goldikova flew across the Atlantic from Paris to Louisville on October 30 for her date with destiny, the five year-old Irish-bred was treated like royalty on the nine-hour flight.

Why not? Goldikova’s latest quest: an unprecedented hat trick in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Mile. Last time out, the darling of France earned her record-setting 11th Grade-1 or Group-1 win with a determined half-length score in the Qatar Prix de la Foret (Fr-I) at Longchamp Racecourse outside Paris.

“Team Europe” will be represented by plenty of top-flight runners at the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships at Churchill Downs, Nov. 5-6. Thoroughbred racing's most prestigious global event consists of 14 races with purses totaling $25.5 million.

The 27th edition spotlights another pair of sensational mares, Midday and Sarafina. Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien-- Europe’s version of Todd Pletcher-- is expected to send a four-strong team to Churchill Downs, including Rip Van Winkle and Fame and Glory. The Aga Khan's Behkabad will be racing outside of France for the first time in the Breeders' Cup Turf. Prince Khalid’s Workforce, brilliant winner of the Epsom Derby and the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, also may compete in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. As of mid-October projections called for 20- to-25 Euros to turn up in the starting gates at Churchill Downs.

Shipping horses overseas and expecting them to perform in different climates and on different surfaces can be tricky business. But how does it work? Do trainers of top-flight racehorses dial up travel agents when it’s time to compete in prestigious races across the globe?

Joseph Santarelli, Sr. started a freight shipping business at Idlewild Airport (N. Y.) in 1956. Then in 1977 his sons Joe and Charles along with Charles Meridino launched Mersant International, a multi-faceted corporation licensed as a customs broker and freight forwarder. Today, Mersant is known worldwide for such specialty shipments such as exotic zoo animals, fine jewelry, aircraft parts, tobacco and cigars, and network news crews, as well as having an entire department expressly devoted to the international transportation of horses worldwide.

For two decades Mersant has been the official agent for the Breeders Cup Races as well as the official U. S. agent for the Dubai World Cup. They maintain offices in New York, Kentucky and California with roughly 2o employees.

Derry Meeting a Longtime Client
Chester County horseman George Strawbridge, Jr. has spent three decades thoughtfully breeding thoroughbreds, and coming up with a number of classic-quality runners. He has foaled and raised his share of regal racehorses at the late Marshall Jenney’s Derry Meeting Farm. Strawbridge and Derry Meeting, both residing in Cochranville, Pa, have been clients of Mersant for three decades.

The winner of U. S. Eclipse Awards in 2008-’09, Strawbridge typically ships three to six young colts and fillies to England and France to train and race. He has won many prestigious fixtures on the European racing circuit with runners such as Turgeon, a winner of Group-1 races in Ireland and France; French Oaks champion Montare; Selkirk, twice a champion miler in Europe and successful British sire; and Tikkanen, a champion 3-year old colt in France that won the 1994 Breeder’s Cup Turf race. Lucarno captured the 231st running of the classic St. Ledger run at 1 ¾-mile in 2007, while Rainbow View was named the top 2-year old filly in Europe in 2008.

“Marshall Jenney used to call me when he had a yearling being prepared and we would come up with a plan to ship,” recalled Mersant’s “Pancho” Zahariou. “We went back to the late 1970s. Marshall had a wonderful relaxed attitude. He had a job to do, but he wasn’t stressed out about it. A lot of individuals today shipping horses aren’t like that.”

Bettina Jenney, owner of Derry Meeting, has sent a number of her young horses to France, including Mrs. Lindsay who was shipped to France from Canada. In 2007, PA-bred Mrs. Lindsay triumphed in a Group-1 and Group-2 races and was narrowly beaten in another Group-1, firmly establishing herself as one of the best fillies in France. She is currently in Ireland with a Galileo filly and in foal to Sea The Stars. Jenney and Mersant are planning on bringing Mrs. Lindsay home to Derry Meeting next year.

“We send them down to a farm in Kentucky and Pancho takes of everything else,” said Jenney. “It’s been a pleasure dealing with them all these years. I remember Marshall got free rides over on the plane since he worked keeping an eye on the horses. He was so excited. He just loved the whole experience.”

Traveling Thoroughbreds
Shipping cost depends on many variables, including the number of horses and grooms traveling as well as the distance of the journey. For the owners of the Euro Breeders’ Cup horses, the westbound sector of the flight (subsidized by the Breeders Cup organization) is fixed at a cost of $25,000. A total of three aircraft will be shipping the Euro horses. The planes are chartered DC-8 aircraft that initially shipped yearlings purchased at the Keeneland Sale in September for buyers in Europe. The charter aircraft returned to America with the Breeders’ Cup entrants on October 30 and November 1.

Importing horses into the America is relatively easy-- typically completed within a week. Exporting is more complex, requiring a 30-day quarantine certifying that the horses are clean and free of infectious diseases.

The Breeders’ Cup importing process works something like this: a European owner decides he want to bring a horse into the United States to race. He then calls a company in Europe similar to Mersant to handle the shipping and travel arrangements. They notify Mersant, who begins the paperwork and gets the blood samples together from Europe.

The European agents arrange for vanning of the horse to the airport, book the flight and hire flying grooms and a veterinarian that will accompany the horses on their overseas trip. Mersant coordinates with customs brokers, horse identifiers, USDA veterinarians and staff, along with the horse's regular veterinarian in order to import the horse.

Preparing thoroughbreds for travel on the DC-8 is not much different from getting them ready for a trip on a regular truck and going on the road. The horses may wear bandages or traveling boots on their legs to protect them, and their halters are light and comfortable with sheepskin on the sides, nose and crown to protect their heads in transit. The air they breathe is climate-controlled to keep the horses from perspiring.

“The horses are hand-walked to the back of the plane and the stalls are built around them,” said Chris Santarelli, who handles the Breeders’ Cup shipments for Mersant. “The horses are loosely crossed–tied, provided with excellent quality hay in haynets in their stalls. They are encouraged to drink water and fluids throughout the journey. Just like you or I, they need to rehydrate when in the air.”

Adapt Well
Besides the personal grooms, the horses are accompanied by flying grooms provided by the airline, who can anticipate problems.

“Sometimes a horse might act up so that’s why the vet is onboard,” Santarelli noted. “The horse is sedated only if it’s absolutely necessary when the horse is at risk or the grooms around it. But that seldom occurs since they are used to this method of transport since they were youngsters flying to races throughout the racing season so they adapt pretty well. There is no comparison with the attention they receive.”

The horses do have a certain freedom to move around in their stalls and shift their weight. During the flight one of the handlers stays in close contact with the captain on weather conditions. The horses’ reaction to turbulence is not that significant. The average horse trailer usually provides a much bumpier ride.

Once the plane touches down in Louisville, the horses aren’t allowed to set foot in Churchill Downs for 42 hours because of quarantine rules. Blood samples drawn at the airport are expressed to the National Veterinarian Service Laboratory in Ames, Iowa. The horses are vanned from the airport to barns No. 42 and 45 on the track’s backside that have been altered to the specifications of a private quarantine facility.

“The key factor for us is that everything is in place to get the horses off-loaded and trailered to the quarantine site with the utmost safety in mind,” Santarelli noted. “We’re looking for compatibility between horses when we transport them. If they are to from the same training yard, they probably fly next to each other, and would wind up side-by-side at the barn at Churchill.”

Mersant also makes arrangement for hotels and shuttle service for the horses’ grooms. Mersant’s peak season is September through December when yearlings and broodmares from sales and homebreds are shipped to and from Europe. There are no absolutes in this specialty business. Being fluid is a good thing.

“We’ve worked with many zoos around the world shipping exotic animals,” Santarelli said. “We’ve shipped roaring tigers, but they are shipped with nothing but hard freight. We also ship personal pets, dogs and cats, for people who are being relocated. Being divesified helps, but horses are our main niche which is why we’ve been here all these years.”

As for those prized Euros, once the blood tests come back with no abnormalities, they begin to familiarize themselves with their new surroundings and then get down to business with serious workouts under the famous twin spires.

Contact Pennsylvania Equestrian racing reporter Terry Conway at