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Racehorses heading for Belmont Stakes travel in style by air or by van

Triple Crown hopeful American Pharoah arrives at Long

Triple Crown hopeful American Pharoah arrives at Long Island MacArthur Airport on Tuesday, June 2, 2015. American Pharoah will be running in the Triple Crown's last race, the Belmont Stakes on Saturday. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

When American Pharoah stepped from the 727 jet onto the high-walled ramp directly connected to a massive trailer Tuesday at Islip's MacArthur Airport, he stopped, turned his head, cocked his ears forward and looked at the small crowd assembled on the tarmac to see the Triple Crown contender.

First off the plane, he then sauntered down into the trailer that was taking him to Belmont Park in Elmont, where he is to run in Saturday's $1.5 million Belmont Stakes.

The 1 3/4-hour flight from Louisville, Kentucky, appeared to be no big deal for the 3-year-old or, for that matter, for the 12 other horses on the plane.

They appeared equally unperturbed as they were led from the still-roaring jet to one of three huge vans lined up side by side, their feet never actually touching the tarmac.

Like thousands of racehorses and show horses, they are used to traveling. Where once equines were our major form of transportation, they -- or at least their valuable sporty offspring -- are now just as likely to ride in trailers or jets as they schlep from one race venue, show or training facility to another.

Curt Lange of Brook Ledge Horse Transportation -- Tuesday's conveyor of American Pharoah on the second leg of his journey-- said the ground transport company based in Oley, Pennsylvania, hauls about 40,000 to 50,000 horses a year.

Nicole Pieratt, president of Sallee Horse Van Lines, based in Lexington, Kentucky, estimated her third-generation family-owned business ships about 50,000 horses each year.

About 2,000 horses fly a year aboard planes for H.E. "Tex" Sutton Forwarding Company, according to Greg Otteson, head of sales and scheduling. The equine air transport company, based in Lexington, handled American Pharaoh's flight Tuesday.

What is amazing is that, given their young age and reputation for being high strung, most thoroughbred racehorses do fine with their peripatetic existence, trainers and transporters say.

"The horses are used to it," said Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer for Belmont Stakes contender Frosted.

Frosted's recent travels are a case in point.

After the flashy gray won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens on April 4, McLaughlin, who trains about 40 of his 100 horses at Belmont, wanted him to get more training in Florida before the Kentucky Derby in Louisville on May 2.

So he had him sent via FedEx to Fort Lauderdale:

Four days after his two-length victory, the thoroughbred left his stall at 11:30 a.m. in Elmont.

He climbed into a van going to Newark, where he boarded a FedEx jet. Seven hours later, he was in a stall in Florida.

After several weeks of training, he then flew -- via a Tex Sutton jet -- from Florida to Louisville the Monday before the Derby.

Two days after he came in fourth at the Derby, he flew to MacArthur, where he rode a van back to his shedrow stall at Belmont Park.

The FedEx trip cost about $12,000, the other flights about half that, the vans to and from the planes cost a few hundred more, McLaughlin said, but time is money in racing.

"We don't have a week in our business," said Christophe Lorieul, assistant trainer for Christophe Clement, trainer of Tonalist, who won last year's Belmont Stakes.

Lorieul said they had recently FedEx'd a filly from Newark to Los Angeles, where she flew, accompanied by two grooms, in a crate with wood shavings and a hay net.

Otteson said Tex Sutton planes can handle as many as 21 horses.

Single stalls are 31 inches by 83 inches -- about the size of a standing stall in a horse van. A stall and a half -- typically used by show horses, which are often warmbloods, who tend to be larger than young track thoroughbreds -- are about 46 inches by 83 inches.

Each horse stands in wood shavings and has a net full of hay -- which keeps them busy and helps them adjust to changing air pressure -- with water offered by grooms during the flight, Otteson said.

Horse van stalls can also vary, ranging from box stalls to standing stalls with two horses abreast, and they contain water buckets and hay nets -- "all the amenities of home," Pieratt said.

Each trainer has his own way to protect a horse from getting hurt en route. McLaughlin uses wraps -- bandages -- on his horses' legs, while Lorieul said Clement prefers manufactured shipping boots.

Lorieul said their stable's horses wear protective head gear; not so with McLaughlin.

Many horses won't drink water during a flight or ground trip. To prevent stomach distress that could lead to colicking, some trainers give horses mineral oil and electrolytes before a long haul.

Very rarely, when a horse is claustrophobic, will they use a tranquilizer, trainers and transporters said. Horses are less able to adjust to any movement in the van or plane when they are sedated.

And it means that the horse won't be able to race until the drug is gone from his blood.

While smaller trailers can be bouncy, the big tractor trailers with their air suspension systems are generally smooth, Lange said.

"When they're rolling down the road, it's very quiet and serene and you'll see horses lying down if they're in box stalls," he said.

Larry Ulrich, the Tex Sutton agent who conducted the precision operation that carried American Pharaoh and the other horses from Louisville to Elmont, said pilots will fly out of their way to avoid turbulence.

"Our passengers can't put on a seat belt," he said.

The rainy weather coming into New York added time to Tuesday's flight, normally 1 hour and 33 minutes, he said.

And, he said, pilots carrying horses make gentler ascents and descents than those carrying humans.

After seeing that American Pharoah and the others were deposited at Belmont, he said his next assignment was to see that a bunch of show horses were shipped from Pennsylvania to Southern California.

"It's been an insane day," he said.

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