Air Horse One

The sky’s the limit for many of the Thoroughbreds coming to Keeneland for this month’s Breeders’ Cup.

The $26 million Breeders’ Cup is a two-day horsepalooza of Thoroughbred racing expected to stir up quite a buzz when Keeneland, that small but stylish neo-Southern track in Lexington, hosts the event for the first time this October. The Breeders’ Cup has developed a real influence over equine championships, bringing the best horses together in 13 races for different divisions. It also draws a global crowd of racing fans and insiders. The fact that the Breeders’ Cup is coming to Central Kentucky, where the event was conceived, thrills those insiders on a scale of Scarlett O’Hara finally falling for old Rhett. High rollers will sip their bourbon neat, air-kiss their pals, and talk about the smooth landings they had in their private jets at the airport across the road from the track.

Illustration by Adam Doyle

Smooth flights also will be expected for their horses. Some equine participants will arrive in horse vans if they don’t have to travel a long distance. Many more will arrive by air, especially those coming from Europe and perhaps even Asia. Horses that compete at global events like the Breeders’ Cup fly in roomy Boeing 747s while serviced by flight attendants known as “flying grooms.” These million-dollar horses are accustomed to jetting everywhere from Australia to Dubai and points in between. They even carry passports with a list of all their shots. For a horse, there’s no better way to hoof it somewhere than to catch a flight.

A glimpse inside the world of global horse travel reveals a culture of highly pampered equines. They don’t have to schlep their luggage. There’s always someone to scoop their poop. And unlike most of us, they don’t have to remove their shoes for security screening in the airport.

High ticket race horses are generally shipped three across, separated by partitions in a container called a jet stall. They don’t ship in the cargo hold; instead they fly in the main section of the plane, where people would be seated if these were passenger flights. The jet stalls on the Boeing 747s are closed and thus there is no stink (unless you open a container door and stick your head inside). Even so, people who work with horses actually like barnyard aromas. Built into the price of each plane ticket (e.g., $10,000 to $12,000 from the United States to England) is a meal of fresh green hay and all the bottled spring water they can drink.

“They like Poland Spring Water,” says Joe Santarelli, a partner in Jamaica, New York–based Mersant International, Ltd., which will play a big role in getting horses to the Breeders’ Cup. He notes that 10 to 15 horses will go through a hundred five-gallon jugs of water during a trans-Atlantic flight.

The skies are filled with more flying hooves than most people realize, and the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) is quite accustomed to their arrivals and departures. As recently as 2010, the airport served as the destination point and quarantine facility for the World Equestrian Games in Lexington. “We’ve chartered many aircraft out of CVG for many years,” says Chuck Santarelli, another partner in Mersant International.

“Cincinnati is a port that can handle horses,” adds Chuck’s cousin, Chris Santarelli, another partner in the company. “We have horses that come through Cincinnati that do quarantine at Keeneland. We had a flight that came in and out of Cincinnati at the end of March with a filly [from Europe] that raced at Keeneland.”

Breeders’ Cup horses from outside North America will fly on 747s into Cincinnati or Louisville. At the same time, many competitors arriving by air from points within the United States will fly directly into Lexington on a 727-200 plane based at that airport. (The larger 747 cargo planes can’t land at Lexington—the airport doesn’t have runways long enough to accommodate the stopping distance that a 747 requires when fully loaded with horses.)

Mersant International has been the official shipper for the event since the mid-1980s, when Breeders’ Cup, Ltd. began chartering a plane exclusively for international competitors. The company arranges itineraries for the majority of those horses traveling from outside the United States, and organizes a charter that generally departs England or Ireland. In addition to the crew of flying grooms, the charter has a specially trained veterinarian onboard, because sometimes a horse decides it really doesn’t want to ride in a big ol’ jet 30,000 feet in the air. If something should go really, really wrong, the crew carries a heavy animal tranquilizer to sedate the horse. Another possibility is to divert the plane and get the animal off the jet.

This hardly ever happens, according to folks in the business. Still, there are bumps from time to time. A horse named Warning lost his balance in his jet stall and skinned both front legs soon after the plane bringing him from England landed in Miami for the 1989 Breeders’ Cup. The injuries forced Warning to be scratched from his race, the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Mile. Perhaps he should have kept his seat belt buckled until the plane came to a complete stop at the gate. (Just kidding: Horses aren’t required to wear seat belts because the containers are roofed.)

Scott Arnold, 54, of Glen Head, New York, chose a career as a flying groom 36 years ago and worked his way up to head flying groom. You might wonder why he chose horses over becoming a flight attendant. Some days he wonders, too. “You don’t have to deal with people, but my passengers bite and kick,” he says.

Arnold spoke to me by phone from Los Angeles International Airport while on a layover. The trip he was on had already taken him from New York to Chicago, then to Anchorage and on to Japan where the crew unloaded horses. About eight hours later the plane flew to Los Angeles. “I’m here to pick some horses up in the morning and then I’m flying home.” Some months, he’s hardly ever home.

Flying grooms work their way down the aisle making sure each horse has his snacks of hay, spring water, and sometimes a grain-based meal if his trainer sent it pre-packaged in a baggie. You can’t pamper these animals too much, they’re worth more than most of us. Indeed, horse planes have fine-tuned travel better than your average passenger plane. If the crew doesn’t think one horse should be rubbing noses with another, they extend a “sniffer board” between the stalls—a novel idea, considering we’ve all encountered those irritating passengers who like to hog the armrest.

The one thing horse flights don’t ever see is passengers pawing their way over others to get to the restroom. Horses do what they have to do standing right where they are. It’s quick, convenient, and no fuss for the animal, who never gives a thought to going somewhere private.

However, urine poses a potential problem; it can cause metal surfaces, like the floor of the plane, to corrode. This is not a hazard on the shipping containers used on the 747s because they’re sealed. But on the smaller Tex Sutton plane based out of Lexington, named for transport company founder H.E. “Tex” Sutton, containers will not fit onboard, so the crew assembles fiberglass stalls around the horses as they board. When nature calls, the horses whiz onto absorbent wood shavings carefully placed atop trays and padding intended to catch any spillover. Of course, as anyone who’s ever changed a diaper knows, some of this stuff can be hard to contain. Fortunately for all, a routine urine check takes place once every 100 flight hours. This is an important task: Among regular fliers on the Tex Sutton plane is the new Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah (he with the misspelled name). You wouldn’t want this $30 million horse free-falling through the skies just because someone forgot the urine check.

Human passengers flying in and out of Lexington frequently see the plane docked at the rear of the airport. Air Horse One, as it’s also called, is dedicated solely to horse transport. Emblazoned on its fuselage is the slogan: “First Class Equine Air Travel.” The plane does not have windows, presumably because horses don’t care if they get the window seat.

Because Mersant International does not have its own plane, it operates like a travel agent, booking space on a variety of airlines, from Air France and Nippon Cargo to Lufthansa, Emirates, and many more. For domestic flights, they send horses with Tex Sutton or FedEx. (Sign here for your horse, please.) The people at Mersant also arrange for the in-flight perks, like ordering bottled water by the truckload and contracting with the flying grooms and veterinarian.

And about those perks: Pampered horses fully expect the amenities to keep on coming even after the plane lands. During 28 years at Breeders’ Cup, Ltd., mostly as senior vice president of operations, Pam Blatz-Murff considered it her job to please all finicky horses and most of all, their trainers and owners. Sometimes this meant locating a goat to babysit a nervous horse.

Goat requests pose a conundrum. The animals have long been known to have a calming influence on nervous racehorses. But, cloven-hooved as they are, they are not allowed into horse quarantine. The first time an English trainer asked if his filly could bring along her goat, Blatz-Murff  had to find a quick solution. The solution turned out to be a look-alike goat. Blatz-Murff found an American goat of identical color and size and presented this replacement to the filly upon her arrival at the event. The filly was most pleased. This taught Blatz-Murff always to have a lineup of goat replacements at the ready: various sizes, colors, and shapes. Picture an aristocratic English horse of long lineage walking down the goat line, sniffing through aquiline nostrils and deciding on the raw boned brunette.

Back in 1985, an English filly named Pebbles had the Breeders’ Cup staff scrambling to meet her requirements: a daily pint of Guinness and raw fertile eggs mixed into her oats. Pebbles arrived from England for the Cup with her close companion in tow, a castrated boy horse named Come On the Blues. He went everywhere with Pebbles except into the starting gate. Following the race, the two shared their eggs and Guinness—and a few slaps on the back when Pebbles became the second British-trained Thoroughbred to win a Breeders’ Cup race.

Import regulations also can impact the horse handlers. Dora Delgado, current senior vice president of racing, recalls the horse groom who deplaned in Toronto when the Breeders’ Cup was raced there in 1996. Alert and discerning Canadian customs agents noticed the groom’s boots were fashioned from the skin of a protected snake and seized them, forcing the groom to walk barefoot from the tarmac to the waiting horse van.

As the world is changing, so is the culture of horse transport. Mersant International has evolved into something of a personal shopping service for the super rich, picking up Fendi bags for Middle Eastern clients or bubble-wrapping a Ferrari to ship by air. The company also ships fish, as well as zoo animals. Chuck Santarelli finds flights for about 75 shipments annually of lions, tigers, cheetahs, gorillas, even tiny toads.

Do they send the lions or tigers on the same planes with horses? Well, sometimes. But with extreme caution. “The big cats of the world can smell the meat,” he says. And the horses (i.e., the meat) can also smell the cats. This would not portend a smooth flight for either species. Or the crew. “What we’ve seen happen is they’ll put the one in the front and the other all the way in the back,” he says. But they try for separate flights.

Come Breeders’ Cup week, Mersant will be all about horses. The Breeders’ Cup is expecting two to three charter flights originating in England or Ireland. The event awards a $40,000 travel allowance to every horse coming from outside North America, according to Delgado. (Canadian and domestic horses receive a lesser allowance.) This helps offset the price of a plane ticket and travel expenses for each horse’s attendants.

One charter will be arranged for horses owned by Coolmore, an Irish-based global conglomerate. Coolmore enters so many horses in Breeders’ Cup races that they usually fill a good part of one plane. The second flight is the Breeders’ Cup charter that Mersant puts together to bring all other horses departing Europe. As for the third flight…well, there’s a story. This flight will be the 747 from the United Arab Emirates that the rulers of Dubai, the al Maktoum family, use exclusively to haul their horses around the world. The al Maktoums are the biggest global players in this sport, so they need their own horse plane just like Donald Trump needs his.

Al Maktoum family members fly to Lexington at least once a year on still more planes: one 747 for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum and another for his brother, Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum. With the UAE flag painted on their tails and Arabic script emblazoned on the fuselages, the planes are always a curiosity in Kentucky. While in the Bluegrass, the sheiks inspect their horse farms and spend millions annually at the horse auctions.

According to a rumor that long ago evolved into a Lexington urban legend, the interiors of these Emirates planes are well appointed with gold faucets and the like. But that’s what this horse travel culture is all about—first class perks, whether for human or for horse.

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