Brant Says USDA “Kidnapped” His Horse

When Peter Brant shipped a collection of newly turned 2-year-olds from the Mocklershill training facility in Ireland to the U.S. on Jan. 13 he had no reason to expect that their transport from Europe to Payson Park in Florida would be anything other than routine. Brant ships horses from Europe to the U.S. all the time.

But in the case of a well-bred 2-year-old named Belle Gambe (Ire) (Dubawi {Ire}), the filly has been stuck in quarantine at Churchill Downs for more than three weeks, the result of what Brant says is a false positive for a venereal disease called Dourine. What has ensued, he said, has been a nightmarish three weeks during which his pleas to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to release the filly have fallen on deaf ears and Brant’s frustrations with the USDA have boiled over.

“She’s in quarantine in Kentucky at Churchill Downs and you’re in a trap there,” Brant said. “They’ve basically kidnapped my horse.”

Brant is known for racing some of the best horses on the planet, but he has every reason to believe that Belle Gambe might stand out from the rest. A homebred, she’s by Dubawi out of Unaided (GB), by Dansili (GB). That makes her a half-sister to Uni (GB) (More Than Ready), the winner of the 2019 GI Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf and that year’s champion turf filly.

“Obviously, she is a very important horse to us,” Brant said.

According to Chuck Santarelli, the president of Mersant International, the shipping company that brought the Brant horses to the U.S., blood was taken on the horses before they left Ireland and was sent to the USDA lab in Ames, Iowa and they all tested negative. Five horses were tested, four of which boarded the plane to the U.S. However, after they arrived and were under USDA supervision at the Kentucky Import Center, Brant was informed that Belle Gambe had tested positive for Dourine. Because she had not met the USDA requirements to enter the country, the USDA could not release her to the general population and instead placed her in quarantine.

According to the Center for Food Security and Public Health, Dourine is “a serious, often chronic, venereal disease of horses and other equids. This protozoal infection can result in neurological signs and emaciation, and the case fatality rate is high.”

Brant couldn’t understand why the other four horses tested negative and Belle Gambe did not or why the filly showed no signs of being sick. He began to look into the situation and found that false positives for the disease being flagged by the USDA were not uncommon. In a 2020 article posted on the website that covered false positives for Dourine and other diseases, the author wrote: “Importing horses into the U.S.A. had become a nightmare for some horse owners whose horses produced ‘false positive’ blood tests in the quarantine process.”

“The USDA doesn’t allow for interpretation anymore because the old guard is gone and been replaced with just bureaucrats who don’t understand the testing and won’t, and can’t, interpret,” Dr. Scarlette Gotwals told the website. “The USDA used to have veterinarians in charge of field operations who would review an individual situation and make an interpretation. Now, no one will do anything outside of a rule book.”

Brant and his attorney Chapman Hopkins were convinced that Belle Gambe was the latest horse that the USDA had incorrectly flagged as positive and that its rules and testing methods were archaic.

“I have, unfortunately, had to handle dozens of international equine import cases involving false positives over the last decade,” Hopkins said. “The disappointment and outrage felt by Mr. Brant is entirely reasonable and understandable. As I shared with Mr. Brant yesterday, what they are experiencing is the unfortunate result of the USDA’s imperfect testing methodologies and quarantine procedures.”

The disease is transmitted almost exclusively during breeding, obviously not a factor with a 2-year-old unraced filly.

“You have to understand this is not my area of expertise, but when Peter called me I consulted with a bunch of people to get some background information,” said Dr. Larry Bramlage. “This is a terrible and unfortunate set of circumstances. Dourine doesn’t even exist in Ireland or in the U.S. It’s only submitted by sexual contact and she’s just a 2-year-old. None of this makes any practical sense. But it’s one of those things where it’s difficult to circumvent what’s written down as the regulations that they have to follow.”

Brant considered his options. One was to ship the horse back to Ireland and have her race there rather than for trainer Chad Brown in the U.S. But he decided to let things take their course. That just led to more headaches.

On the advice of the medical and reproductive team at Rood and Riddle, Brant asked the USDA to treat the filly with a drug called Marquis, which treats protozoal myelitis, to wipe out any random protozoa which could be cause the false positive for Dourine..

“We wanted to have her treated with Marquis but the USDA just plain rejected it,” Brant said.

It was a pattern he would grow familiar with. He said the USDA was, from the start, uncooperative and uncommunicative.

“I have been dealing with them by email but get no response,” he said. “My lawyer has tried talking to them and so has Mersant. They can’t get anything out of them. There’s been no discussion. There is no flexibility and they just won’t use common sense.”

Fourteen days after Belle Gambe tested positive, another test was taken. In the initial test, the filly was positive for Dourine at a dilution of 3+1:10. In the subsequent test, the level had gone down to a dilution of 1+1:10. While that was a step in the right direction, it was not enough to release her from quarantine.

Meanwhile, Brant was growing increasingly concerned about the impact of quarantine on a young horse at a time when they need to be exercised to foster their growth and development.

“I’m of the school of thought that the training period between Sept. and Oct. through the following spring is extremely important for a young horse, whether they run as a 2-year-old or they don’t,” Brant said. “It’s a very important factor. It’s important to get a horse like this into training as soon as possible. She been quarantined for nearly a month and that’s damaging to this horse. There are enough hurdles in this game for owner to go through as it is. This is just not unacceptable.”

Perhaps, the worst might soon be almost over. The filly is scheduled for another test on Feb. 10, with the results due on the 12th. If she tests negative the quarantine will be lifted and she can resume training toward her racing debut.

“I hope she tests negative,” Bramlage said. “Everything indicates that she should.”

Brant is prepared for the worst. If she tests positive again, the only two options left are that she will have to return to Ireland or be put down within five days. Just in case, Brant has already reserved a spot on a flight back to Ireland.

“I am not optimistic,” he said. “I am not optimistic at all. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why this has happened. The test is faulty and that’s all there is to it.”

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