Plane Makes Legroom For Preakness Contenders

A horse models the in-flight accommodations. Courtesy of H.E. Sutton Forwarding Company i i

A horse models the in-flight accommodations. Courtesy of H.E. Sutton Forwarding Company hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of H.E. Sutton Forwarding Company
A horse models the in-flight accommodations. Courtesy of H.E. Sutton Forwarding Company

A horse models the in-flight accommodations.

Courtesy of H.E. Sutton Forwarding Company
Flight supervisor Ryan Starley guides his passenger off the plane. i i

Flight supervisor Ryan Starley guides a four-legged passenger off the plane Wednesday at Baltimore Washington International Airport. Rebecca Roberts/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Rebecca Roberts/NPR
Flight supervisor Ryan Starley guides his passenger off the plane.

Flight supervisor Ryan Starley guides a four-legged passenger off the plane Wednesday at Baltimore Washington International Airport.

Rebecca Roberts/NPR
Horses peek out the door. i i

Horses peek out the airplane door after landing. Rebecca Roberts/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Rebecca Roberts/NPR
Horses peek out the door.

Horses peek out the airplane door after landing.

Rebecca Roberts/NPR

Two of Saturday's Preakness favorites caught the same plane in from Louisville this week. Rachel Alexandra and Pioneerof the Nile flew into Baltimore Washington International Airport Wednesday on a charter run by H.E. "Tex" Sutton Forwarding Co.

For thoroughbred racehorses, Tex Sutton is one of the best ways to fly. The specialty cargo company, billed as "world class equine air travel" on its Web site, has tricked out a Boeing 727 to hold up to 21 horses in relative comfort.

Wednesday's flight had only 17 horses, so it was set up for first class, giving each horse a little more legroom. The modified cargo jet has horse stalls instead of seats — and a distinct barn smell. The flight had started in Los Angeles and stopped in Louisville to pick up Rachel Alexandra and Pioneerof the Nile before landing at the cargo terminal at BWI.

"We're like flight attendants for horses," flight supervisor Ryan Starley says. He says horses are usually pretty easy passengers, although he jokes that they always want to watch Seabiscuit as the in-flight movie. Takeoff and landing are the roughest parts of the journey, but he says Sutton pilots take off very slowly and gradually, and land the same way.

Starley says each horse handles the stress of air travel differently. Racehorses get more "keyed up" than show horses, especially those that have never flown before. Both Starley's team and the grooms that travel with the horses spend part of their flight time soothing the animals. But most of them enjoy "being up here with their friends," Starley says. "It's sort of like it was when we were kids, when we'd be on a field trip on a bus with all our buddies, having a good time."

After landing, Starley and his crew help their horse passengers off their special horse plane, down the special horse ramp, and into special horse trailers. Then Rachel Alexandra, Pioneerof the Nile and a few of their fellow passengers are off to the races at Pimlico.

Despite his experience watching over thoroughbreds, Starley says he is no better at picking the winners than the next guy.

"I lose money at the track, just like everybody else. Three hundred and fifty years they been trying to figure out who's going to win, and they haven't done it yet — and I haven't either."

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