Wall of Fire arrives at Melbourne International Airport on September 30, 2017 in Tullamarine, Australia. (Reg Ryan Racing Photos)

Tale (or Tail) of a Travelling Horse

As the Autumn sets in and the English flat racing season starts to wind down, the Victorian Spring Carnival starts to warm up and the focus of the racing world shifts down under. With my husband Rob travelling with Hugo Palmer’s Melbourne Cup entrant Wall Of Fire it has made me feel quite nostalgic for my travelling foreman days. As I now time everything in my life around race meetings, the two weeks before the Arc de Triomphe are always associated in my mind with Melbourne Cup pre-export quarantine at Side Hill stud in Newmarket.

I think the first time I looked after Cup runners in the facility on the other side of the Newmarket heath they were the only two horses in there. Now both shipments are packed to the rafters with raiders clamouring to plunder the Spring riches. Charlie Appleby’s team made it look easy last year taking out the Geelong Cup, the Bendigo Cup, the Lexus, the Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Sandown Cup with a handful of (dare I say it) second rate stayers coming home with over $1.5 million.  

Whilst the action on the gallops in Newmarket normally takes place in the morning, the horses in quarantine go out between four and five in the afternoon. They must stay over 100 metres from other horses or stables at all times, so they exercise on a portion of the heath assigned to them at that time. With runners from a variety of stables from across Europe, it’s fascinating to see the variation in training styles. It’s also a great place to get to know the horses and the strappers looking after them.

I was reminded of the amount of organisation that goes into the endeavour recently when Rob took Wall Of Fire into quarantine. Everything needed for the two weeks there and for the trip to Australia has to be clean, fumigated (where applicable) and in situ on the day quarantine starts… and nothing can be brought in after. I remember very nearly forgetting the hay when I had Bauer and Mad Rush under my care!  

Wall of Fire at Werribee Quarantine Centre on September 30, 2017 in Tullamarine, Australia. (Reg RyanRacing Photos)

A list of people who need to enter quarantine, their details and a change of clothes have to be submitted to IRT (International Racehorse Transport) who are in  charge of the quarantine and shipping of the horses, and that includes everyone from the trainer to the farrier. There are a few Australia-specific requirements that are easy to get tripped up by, such as having to have the correct safety stirrups, the latest regulation helmet and plastic bridles. 

Feed is also an issue. Most trainers send the horses’ regular feed with them when they go abroad to race, but that’s not so straightforward in Australia because the feed is irradiated on arrival and it can be spoiled as a result. Luckily this is well-known now and it’s encouraged to find an Australian feed that replicates what the horse is used to. This can sometimes be shipped up north for the horse to get used to before flying. Yes, they really can be that fussy!

They don't tend to let strappers or foremen fly with their charges these days, but I was lucky enough to do it a few times. There’s not much in the way of entertainment or food and drink delivered on a trolley and the journey takes a good deal longer than the commercial flights, due to regular stops to drop off and pick up cargo, but it’s a fascinating way to travel. 

The horses walk off the float on the tarmac at the airport and straight into their container and up on the scissor lift and rolled into the main hold of the plane.  That’s probably the only slightly disconcerting moment for the horses with unfamiliar sounds and movements underfoot but once in place the rest of the journey tends to be very smooth. Take-off and landing don't pose any problems as the horses just shift their weight to accommodate the incline and decline.  The biggest threat is travel sickness which is caused by an accumulation of bacteria on the lungs. Normally horses feed off the ground and it allows the lungs to drain out through the nostrils, but when they travel with their heads up it can be compromised and become an issue. 

Once landed safely in Australia it’s up to the vets and stable staff to make sure all is well with the horses. Normally a good indication of how well they have traveled is to see how much weight they have lost in transit. Obviously the less the better, but combining that figure with the horse demeanor a usually a good indicator to tell you how soon you can start to get to work with the horse. 

While there is an enormous amount of work involved in traveling a horse out to Australia from Europe, the potential reward, such as winning the Melbourne Cup is worth all the planning and effort, and it is what keeps us coming back for more!