Justify shipped from Churchill Downs to Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on Wednesday, a precise operation that Sutton Forwarding Co. arranges so meticulously that the race horses flying from track to track do not even have to touch the ground.
As Mike Payne spoke Wednesday, he was en route to the Louisville airport to assist in that effort. Payne, the operations manager for Sutton, one of the leading shippers of race horses in the United States, said his company's biggest challenge is keeping the horses active during the process of moving them from a stable to a van to a plane to another van to another stable.
To do so, the shippers try to time the schedules so that one flight lands just in time to unload the horses into a van before another van arrives with more horses to promptly walk onto the plane.
“Their minds are just occupied when they’re moving," Payne said. "They know they’re going somewhere, versus standing around. They’re kind of like little kids.”
To further streamline the operation, the van driver pulls the trailer right up to the ramp onto the plane, so that the horses move straight onboard. On the plane, they each have their own stalls, just as they do in the barns at Churchill Downs.
“We try to coordinate it so that they pass each other leaving the gate at the airport," Payne said. "You don’t like to have them standing around on trucks or the airplane waiting to be loaded or unloaded. We like to keep the planes moving as much as possible, too.”
Payne said a crew of five flies with the horses to take care of them during the flight, in addition to any grooms who travel around with the horses.
Sutton uses 727-200 aircrafts, which can hold up to 21 horses at a time and often near that capacity. Once in flight, the pilots take care to make slighter turns and shallower ascents than in standard trips, to avoid bothering the horses. A steep ascent or descent, Payne said, can jostle the horses and risk injury to their legs. The crew also keeps the cabin on the cooler side.
Still, Payne said he thinks van trips are more of a burden for the horses because of the duration. Sutton, which flies only in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, rarely runs flights longer than four hours.
A horse's trip can be highly scrutinized, especially with one such as Triple Crown contender Justify's to Pimlico on Wednesday. The talk of Derby week, at times, was the status of Mendelssohn after multiple overseas shipments. The Aidan O'Brien-trained colt qualified for the Derby by winning the UAE Derby. Mendelssohn, who sold for $3 million at auction, had his flight diverted to Indianapolis before a van completed his journey to Louisville.
“These things are worth millions of dollars," Payne said. "Any time they’re out of their stall, they’re on guard. They want to know where they’re at, what they’re doing at all times.”