Pegasus was just a myth, but real horses do fly. That's how Kentucky Derby champion Mine That Bird traveled from Churchill Downs to Belmont Park on Wednesday, and how the vast majority of thoroughbreds trek from track to track on a regular basis.
Though Bird's van rides from his New Mexico base to the Derby, then from Kentucky to Baltimore for the Preakness, were much discussed during the first two legs of the Triple Crown series, the routine mode of transportation in the racing business is a Boeing 727 cargo jet, retrofitted with stalls to accommodate as many as 21 horses and five or six human flight attendants.
This week, Bird and the other Belmont contenders not already stabled in New York were packed on to a single flight by Tex Sutton Forwarding, the leading company in equine air travel, on a regular Los Angeles-to-Louisville-to- Farmingdale run.
"We go to Long Island - Farmingdale Republic or, if there are weather issues, Islip," said Tex Sutton's East Coast representative, Larry Ulrich, "because 90 percent of the racehorses are going to Belmont. I don't have to tell you what the traffic is like getting out of JFK; it's 30, 40 minutes from Farmingdale to Belmont."
Arrangements with van companies, a horse version of airport shuttles, are worked out on both ends of the flight, to whisk the thoroughbreds door to door as quickly as possible. During flights, a bale of hay is hung from a rope in front of the horses. "They munch non-stop," Ulrich said, "and the attendants bring them water, make sure they're calm. And we keep the cabin nice and cool for them."
The outfit's late namesake, Tex Sutton, had been a groom and exercise rider before he started the business using railcars in 1954 and was credited with innovations in equine air travel in the early '70s. Because of the equipment required to accommodate horse passengers, Ulrich said the company flies one jet at a time, though it has three planes at its disposal. Operating four to five days a week, year-round, it ships show horses, as well as thoroughbreds, typically carrying 10 to 15 horses per flight.
There is such a thing as "first-class" stalls that are large enough for three racehorses, usually assigned to older, larger show horses or, occasionally, a mare and her baby. Because horses are "herd animals and do better with company," Ulrich said, "a fair amount travel with companion horses.
"Mine That Bird doesn't have a partner, but others travel with their [exercise] ponies. Some horses travel with a companion goat."
A Kentucky-to-New York ticket costs roughly $3,000, Ulrich said; Los Angeles-to-New York about $4,500. And some trainers will book a flight for their entire stable in moving operations to warm-weather sites for the winter months.
Mine That Bird's 1,500-mile ride to the Derby, in a trailer behind trainer Chip Woolley's truck, worked out well enough, Woolley said, because Bird "really hauls well" by land. And Bird proceeded to blow away the Derby field and the 50-1 odds against him. So for the shorter ride from Louisville to the Preakness, Woolley stuck to the highway. But traffic concerns in New York prompted him to turn to air travel, where the primary benefit, Ulrich said, is the time saved. "It's 31/2, four hours from California to New York - an hour and a half from Kentucky to New York.
"So that's an hour and a half instead of, say, 14 hours in an enclosed van. You can get shipping fever anytime a horse spends around 20 hours in a closed space."
Fresher upon arrival for the big race, the colts are theoretically ready to fly.