Flight of the thoroughbreds

Have you ever wondered how thoroughbreds from around the country get to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby? They fly just like anyone would, of course. For ESPN.com

Over the next few months, the phrase "Kentucky Derby Trail" will be spoken and written more times than is worth counting. The races run by a popular horse to make his way into the starting gate on the first Saturday in May will be discussed, analyzed and debated.

As a horse goes from track to track, it is more than likely he has had to hop a plane or two to get there. Luckily for horses, when they fly, they get to skip some of the headaches we humans face. For instance, they get to leave their shoes on during the security check. All in all, flying is not a bad way to travel if you are a horse.

That said, they each must appear at the airport with the equine version of a doctor's note. If they appear without a valid coggins and health certificate, they are not allowed to board. Additionally, the vans in which the horses travel to the airport are searched by TSA or TSA-regulated security, and all persons entering the area are subject to search as well.

For horses looking for the first-class experience, most of the perks come before and after the flight, rather than during the flight. A classic example of that came in the form of 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Big Brown.

"The real VIP treatment is when the plane is chartered for a specific horse at a specific time," explained H.E. "Tex" Sutton Forwarding Co.'s Larry Ulrich. "For example, when Big Brown trained at Palm Meadows right up until the Kentucky Derby, his connections chartered the plane to fly him up there.

"While there ended up being about six or eight other horses on that flight, we did load everybody but Big Brown first. Then they brought him to the airport at the last minute, we closed the doors, and took off. And naturally, because he was last on, logistics dictated that he was the first off."

Given that Tex Sutton has been flying equines for five decades and was one of the first horse transportation companies to provide the service, it is not surprising the operation has flown its fair share of champions like Big Brown.

Once on board, horses are offered refreshments -- no peanuts here, just hay and water -- and settle in for the flight. Since entertainment systems are not exactly high priorities for horses, they usually decide to chat up their neighbors. According to Ryan Starley, a flight supervisor for Tex Sutton, most horses view flying as an adventure.

"Even ones that don't know each other but are stalled side-by-side will buddy up in the plane and hang out together," he said. "Most all of them enjoy the days they fly. If they didn't, I wouldn't do the job. We compare the flights to a day out from school -- you didn't care where you were going as long as you were out of that boring classroom."

Most shipping companies will put a paper tag noting the horse's name and trainer or owner on the horse's halter during the flight. Tex Sutton also puts the initials of the airport for the horse's destination city and the name of who is picking up the horse on the outside of the tag.

It is an added precaution to make sure the right horse is delivered to the right van in the right city. After all, imagine how upset people get when their luggage is lost. Now, imagine that "luggage" is a million-dollar race horse, show horse or beloved family pet. It's not a mistake a shipping company can afford to make.

A few facets of equine flying are enough to make us mere mortals flying coach on a commercial flight long to be a horse. For starters, their humans do not have to hunt for fares for months looking for the best flights. While most of Tex Sutton's clients will book one or two weeks out, as long as they can get to the airport in time to be loaded, a horse can be added to the flight.

While that is nice, perhaps the biggest perk for horses is the fact that they travel from coast-to-coast significantly faster than a commercial flight. There are a few reasons for this. Both of which are logical, but might be frustrating the next time you get stuck on a runway.

Commercial jets fly for fuel economy, and we fly for speed, put simply. Surely you recognize your car gets better gas mileage at 55 mph than at 73 mph? Same thing.

-- Larry Ulrich, Tex Sutton Forwarding Co.

For starters, the dreaded "this flight is 28th in line to take off" announcement is not one a horse flight is likely to receive. When air traffic control is informed there are live animals on board, those flights are usually pushed to the front of the line.

The other reason, appropriately enough, is speed.

"We fly fast," said Ulrich. "Commercial jets fly for fuel economy, and we fly for speed, put simply. Surely you recognize your car gets better gas mileage at 55 mph than at 73 mph? Same thing."

Before jealousy sets in too much, keep in mind that what is comfortable for horses is not necessarily comfortable for people, and horses take priority on the flight. The planes are kept so cold that the people on board to take care of the horses usually pack extra layers of clothes and blankets to keep warm.

"Horses do quite well in colder temperatures and poorly in hot weather," Ulrich said. "When we are full up with 18 or 20 horses in there, the body heat they generate is quite significant. We never want a horse on board to overheat, and we haven't frozen one yet."

Just like people, from time to time a horse truly dislikes the idea of getting onto a plane, but it is not all that common and steps are in place to keep everyone safe. Horses who are clearly uneasy or who have never flown before may be given a mild tranquilizer by a veterinarian. It is rare a horse is banned from flying.

"I would say 95 percent of horses are pretty good," said Starley. "They do a lot of traveling from the time they're born. When one does 'go off,' however, they usually do it or indicate that they're going to during the loading process before we leave the ground. That's when a decision is made to either tranquilize the horse, give him or her more room in the stall, or remove the horse from the flight. We really try to get problems solved before we leave."

Flying horses has become so routine, when 50-1 long shot Mine That Bird took the 2009 Kentucky Derby, one of the biggest story lines surrounding the winner was the fact he did not fly to Louisville.

So much was made of his trainer driving him for 21 hours in a horse trailer from New Mexico to Kentucky that, during the postrace news conference, one of the first questions asked dealt with the journey.

Keep in mind, this was a horse that had just sprung one of the largest upsets in Derby history and was only the second gelding to win the race since 1929. His win was one for the history books, and yet his travel itinerary was almost a bigger deal.

"They make out that we hauled this horse in a '67 GMC with stock grass, but actually we got a super nice van," trainer Chip Woolley said at the time. "We laid over at Lone Star. We were in no hurry to get here; there was plenty of time. It was just an easy trip really. There's been a lot made of that and maybe now they will start talking about something else."

When considering the cost of a domestic flight, which usually runs somewhere from around $3,000-$5,000, driving with a long shot might make some economic sense. However, odds are, this year's Kentucky Derby winner will be an old hat when it comes to flying.

"As far as the Derby and Triple Crown runners go, nothing unusual has gone on, aside from the fact lots of people and film crews are waiting for them at the destinations," said Starley. "I always feel relieved when they're on the way to the racetrack safely after the flight."

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.