Get Me to the Derby On Time

The Run for the Roses starts with a flight to Churchill Downs

Why aren't we getting DHL packages like this? Three racehorses relax in their open pen as they await loading. Courtesy Horse America, Inc.

This Saturday is the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, also known as “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” Sure, early favorites Bodemeister, Gemologist, and Union Rags are prepared to give their all on the one-and-a-quarter-mile track. But how do they get to Churchill Downs in the first place?

Many of them fly to Louisville on all-horse charters. “Equine shipping is big business,” says Andrea Branchini, manager of Horse America, Inc., who has shipped horses to domestic and international locations for more than 25 years.

“You can ship one horse by itself,” he continues, “but usually you try to minimize the cost to the owner by having shares. Horses can travel on regular cargo services on scheduled service carriers, or you can do an all-horses charter, a flight with only horses.”

Author Susan Nusser describes the scene in her new book Kentucky Derby Dreams: The Making of Thoroughbred Champions (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012): “One by one, the vans pull up at the loading ramp. Tall wooden boards slide onto its sides so the horses can’t see over. As the vans pull up, the crew disassembles and reassembles the base of the ramp so that the horses step right onto it from the van without ever seeing the ground. From the ground, the only thing you can see are the very tips of their ears, and sometimes a nose from a horse who’s lifted it up to sniff the air.”

Enjoying refreshments while waiting for the flight to begin. Courtesy Horse America, Inc.

Horses’ grooms usually travel with them in the aircraft, but an equine celebrity may boast a larger entourage. When Triple Crown winner Secretariat retired from racing in 1974, he was flown to Kentucky to begin his post-racetrack career at a stud farm. On the flight he was accompanied by his trainer Lucien Laurin, owner Penny Chenery, his groom Eddie Sweat, and photographer Raymond Woolfe Jr. As Jennifer Wirth noted in The Saturday Post, “As Secretariat’s plane headed for the Bluegrass Airport, the airport tower reportedly called to the pilot, Dan Neff, ‘There’s more people out here to meet Secretariat than there was to greet the governor.’ The pilot allegedly responded, ‘Well, he’s won more races than the governor.’ ” During the flight, a nervous Secretariat clutched at Sweat’s jacket, sucking the fabric for comfort (below).

Secretariat and his groom, Eddie Sweat, on the retired Triple Crown champ's flight to Kentucky. Photograph copyright Raymond Woolfe Jr.