Assistant horse trainer Ricky Giannini walks Prime Cut at Belmont...

Assistant horse trainer Ricky Giannini walks Prime Cut at Belmont Park Wednesday. (June 8, 2011) Credit: Kevin P Coughlin

When the horse plane roared in four days before the Belmont Stakes, it carried 12 equine passengers and five human attendants.

It was met immediately by five air-ride equipped horse vans on the tarmac. Horses that take private jets, like humans who take private jets, rarely have to wait.

The plane, a converted 727 Boeing jet with covered windows and a Pegasus logo on its tail, usually delivers its Belmont-bound thoroughbreds to Republic Airport in East Farmingdale; this year, because of runway construction there, it flew into Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma.

Only two passengers, Santiva and Prime Cut, were slated to run in the third leg of racing's prestigious Triple Crown; the others were show horses or were slated for the race undercard. They stepped placidly and with surprising daintiness down a carpeted ramp, led by attendants, having made the flight from Lexington, Ky., in about 90 minutes.

Custom jets for horses do not come cheap. Renting the horse plane on short notice for a private flight, as some owners do, could cost north of $50,000, said Larry Ulrich, sales manager for H.E. Sutton, the company that runs the operation; on a full flight, with 21 horses, that cost drops into the low thousands.

But the 12 hours it would take to drive from Kentucky to New York is long enough for a horse to get dehydrated, tense and tired. Horses on vans "don't lay down as much," said Neil Howard, Prime Cut's trainer. Flying got Prime Cut here "fresh and fit, ready to do what you got to do. . . . It's as fine-tuned as moving the president around."

H.E. Sutton was founded in 1957, shipping horses first by rail, later by jet. Flying precious horses presents special challenges. Prime Cut sold three years ago for $475,000, according to; recently, Ulrich said, the company flew a $20-million horse, Master of Hounds.

The pilots fly gently. "Especially landing," said pilot Glenn Ingle. No sudden braking: "You do that, every horse is going to be lying on the ground." Turns are very wide and angles of ascent and descent very gradual. "You fly like there's eggs back there," he said, and there is no grace period for employees new to the job. "Guys don't do it right, they're gone."

There are no movies on the horse plane and no windows, on the theory that horses shouldn't be overstimulated. But there are hay slings, fresh cedar chips, lots of water to drink and air-conditioning kept at a steady 50 degrees. Each horse gets its own compartment, set off by plastic barriers low enough to permit socializing.

Human attendants have seats of their own but spend much of the flight walking among the horses. "You pet them, talk to them, see if anybody looks nervous," said flight supervisor Ryan Starley. "If they're nervous, you look to see if they're moving around, ears pinned back, wide eyes -- they'll tell you. They're speaking a language."

Nervousness is rare. In fact, there is a lot of yawning as the horses adjust to the altitude. "They're just mellow. You wouldn't believe it unless you see it," said attendant John Clay, in his 31st year with the company. "They look around, eat. . . . They seem to enjoy it."

To get the horses off the plane as fast as possible, the vans were parked next to each other, their side doors linked by gangways, so the first horses off could walk straight through. It took no more than 15 minutes to offload them all and soon the vans were gone, leaving only the plane, which will remain until Monday morning and then fly back to Kentucky, probably full and maybe carrying this year's Belmont winner.

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