How to Fly a Prizewinning Racehorse to the Kentucky Derby

When the crowds and hats and bourbon descend on Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, all eyes will be on the thoroughbred racehorse—horses that have traveled thousands of miles for the two-minute race. How do elite racehorses fly? Well, let us ascend into the world of equine air travel.

FedEx is probably the international authority on flying live animals, having shipped whales to Chicago, pandas to China, and Olympic equestrian teams to London. But when it comes to racehorses and the Derby, the Kentucky-based H.E. Sutton Forwarding Company is one of the biggest names. Their flight manifest this year includes Derby favorite California Chrome.

H.E. Sutton flies a Boeing 727-200 that's been outfitted with stalls to carry horses. Up to 21 of them, traveling two or three wide, can fit onto one flight with their grooms, tack, and equipment. Food and beverage service comes in the form of hay and water. Sniffer panels keep stallions and mares from getting too excited mid-air.

A smooth flight is all the more important when your passengers are horses. Pilots use gentle ascents and descents to avoid freaking them out. "The horse-cargo flights sometimes accept long delays, or alter course by 1,000 miles or more, to avoid potential turbulence in the air," Tim Dutta, owner of the international horse shipping company Dutta Corp, told NPR.

How to Fly a Prizewinning Racehorse to the Kentucky Derby

And what do horses think of flying, given all that? To be an elite racehorse these days is to be a frequent flier, and they definitely get used to the airport routine after awhile. Still, Dutta says, "we do have some horses that do not like to travel, that are worriers — that worry about the noise, or the sound, or the pressure." Some horses get a sedative to help with the in-flight jitters.

Jet lag is also definitely a thing for horses, especially given the usually regimented lives of elite racers. Most horses will fly out several days before the event to get used to a new routine.

The image of a horse packed on a plane may strike us as a bit funny, but the very idea can seem downright odd when we sit down to consider it. It was only 100 years ago that horses were one of our fastest forms of transportation. Now we measure the engines of our everyday cars in hundreds of horsepower. Now we have an entire transportation network dedicated to transporting the very creatures we once depended on for transportation. Now we put the fastest horses in the world onto jets so they can run around in circles on racetracks—a reenactment of the once awesome, now entirely outdated role of galloping horses. [New York Times, NPR]

Photos from the Kentucky Derby via AP Photo/John Flavell , AP Photo/David J. Phillip,