By Gene Menez
From the moment the celebrity arrived in Baltimore, he could not escape the cameras. A news helicopter from WJZ-13, the local CBS affiliate, showed aerial footage of him deplaning at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. And, as expected in today's social media-mad world, even the airport's official Twitter account sent out a photo of him walking off the airplane.
The chopper followed him as he stepped into a van and was driven -- with an escort from Baltimore police -- to his destination in the northwest part of town. Once there, dozens of photographers anticipating his arrival snapped pictures of him walking off the van before finally ducking out of sight.
The celebrity is none other than Nyquist, the undefeated 3-year-old colt who won the Kentucky Derby on May 7 and flew to Baltimore less than 48 hours later in an attempt to win the second jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday. As is the case this time of the year, with news helicopters and photographers documenting every move of the Derby winner with barn-to-barn coverage, Triple Crown season brings more attention to a horse's travel than any other time.
But what the public sees -- the horse walking on or off the van or plane -- is just one step in a long process. The method of "shipping" horses involves multiple parties and countless steps, all designed to move these animals, some worth hundreds of millions of dollars, comfortably and safely.
Shipping a horse cross-country for a race, a breeding shed or a new home usually requires vanning the animal to the airport, flying, and vanning to the final destination. There are several companies in the business, but Tex Sutton, which has been transporting horses since 1969, is the FedEx of the industry (though you can also ship a horse via FedEx). Clients include the largest stables, including those belonging to trainers Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher, and the Breeders' Cup, which last year had to arrange for 175 horses to travel to Lexington, Ky., in October for the biggest two days in racing.
A forwarding company, Tex Sutton charges between $3,150 (for a trip from, say, Kentucky to New York) and $4,950 (California to New York) to ship a horse one-way, small change considering the value of some of the animals. The company ships between 2,500 and 2,800 horses a year, according to Rob Clark, owner and president of Tex Sutton. In the four days after the May 7 Kentucky Derby alone, the Tex Sutton plane flew from Louisville to L.A./Ontario International Airport and back; to Long Island and back; to Baltimore then Ocala, Fla., and back to Louisville; and to L.A./Ontario again, but the return trip to Lexington had to be diverted for three hours to Indianapolis because of bad weather in Kentucky.
Given the appropriately punny nickname Air Horse One, the Tex Sutton plane is a former Boeing 727 passenger jet that has been converted into a cargo configuration. (As a forwarding company, Tex Sutton does not own the plane. Tex Sutton works with an airline, which provides the aircraft and flight crew and maintains the plane.)
To board, horses walk up a ramp and are loaded from the rear of the plane to front. Those that won't be making the entire trip are loaded last so that they can be unloaded quickly. When possible, fillies and mares are placed at the back of the plane so that the rambunctious colts aren't smelling them and looking at their behinds for hours.
"A studdish colt like that can be his own worst enemy," says Phil Hauswald, a former Breeders' Cup-winning trainer who now serves as an agent for Sallee Horse Vans, which transports horses short and long distances via trailers and trucks.
Air Horse One can carry 21 horses at a time (three stalls per row for seven rows), and each horse has his or her own padded stall. Larger horses and more prominent horses may need a "stall and a half" since elbowroom is nil. Horses stand the entire flight.
"They've got very limited movement in there," says Dora Delgado, the senior vice president of racing and nominations for the Breeders' Cup. She handles the horses' travel arrangements for the two-day event. "They're standing forward. They can't lie down. They really can't move around."
One supervisor and four expert horsemen load and unload the plane and travel with the horses. Often, a groom or an assistant trainer from the stable flies in the plane as well to keep the horse company.
The temperature is kept at a brisk 50 degrees ("Horses are pretty hot-blooded," Clark says. "They like it cold."), horses are given hay and water, and that's usually enough to keep them calm for the duration of the flight, experts say.
Limiting the amount of stress on the horse is the most important factor when shipping. "Traveling is a form of stress on any animal," Clark says. "It's not routine. Their routine is to be in a stall and exercise each day. So you want to keep traveling as least stressful as possible and keep them calm and comfortable."
That is why some horses travel with a non-racing companion. Last year's Triple Crown hero American Pharoah, for example, always flew with his pony, Smokey. Delgado often receives and turns down requests from European-based trainers and owners who would like for their horses to fly with goats or roosters.
Ninety-five percent of horses fly "like pros," Clark says. Last year, for example, the California-based American Pharoah (and Smokey) racked up more than 20,000 miles flying back and forth on Tex Sutton flights between California, Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland and New York without ever turning a hair.
"I have never in my life had a horse that you could ship this many times," Baffert said after American Pharoah won the Belmont to become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. "He's amazing." (But fatigue from all of that shipping was one of the possible reasons Baffert gave to explain the horse's upset loss in the Travers Stakes in August.)
But some horses do not ship well at all. Last year, the brilliantly fast 5-year-old mare Beholder flew from her base in California to Lexington for a start in the Breeders' Cup Classic and a showdown with American Pharoah.
"When she got off the plane, she did not look well," Delgado recalls. Beholder spiked a temperature soon afterward and eventually had to be scratched from the race. Her trainer, Dick Mandella, attributed the temperature to "shipping fever."
"I think it was brought on by the fact she was really tense in the flight," Mandella said that week. "When I walked her off the plane and walked her a little bit and put her in the stall, she urinated what seemed like 20 minutes. I'm sure she did not urinate on the plane. I don't think she drank much water [on the plane] because she drank a bucket right [away], and I think that is what triggered this."
As for Nyquist, all reports are that he travels more like American Pharoah than Beholder. "Just perfect," Clark says. If the horse wins on Saturday, he'll travel to New York in the hopes of capturing the final leg of the Triple Crown, at the Belmont Stakes, with news helicopters and photographers undoubtedly tracking every step of his journey.
Will the 5-7 favorite fly through the finish line at the Preakness Saturday? That's still up in the air.