When I travel by plane, I snack and drink and pray for a bump-free ride. What about the horses that fly in to compete at Saratoga Race Course? Apparently, they don’t have to do much praying. “We avoid turbulence at all costs,” says Greg Otteson, Sales Manager for H.E. “Tex” Sutton Forwarding Company in Lexington. “We’ll fly a long ways around a storm just to avoid it.” On the company’s Boeing 727 cargo plane—a.k.a. Air Horse One (ha!)—up to 21 equine passengers stand close together in stalls, so the jet ascends and descends more slowly than on you-and-me-type flights. Horse ears are also more sensitive to changes in air pressure—but they experience something similar to what humans do with shifts in altitude. “You quite often see them, when you get up to altitude or when you land, kind of adjusting their jaws. I think they’re popping their ears,” Otteson says. And like me, horses enjoy in-flight snacks. “We put a hay bag or net in front of them, just to give them something to munch on.”
Countless of Thoroughbreds have come to town since Saratoga Race Course opened in 1864. In the olden days, racehorses were walked to the track from Sanford Stud Farm in Amsterdam, NY, 30 miles away. For decades, until the late 1960s, they chugged in by train. Last summer, Air Horse One touched down nine times at Albany International Airport. Each landing is carefully choreographed. After the plane gently lands, a special ramp with five-foot-tall sides is put in place. That’s when the horse vans drive onto the airfield. The horses are led off the plane and down the ramp onto more ramps that connect to trucks. “They never touch ground,” says Nicole Pieratt, President and CEO of Sallee Horse Vans Inc. Sallee, also based in Lexington, carries hundreds of horses to Saratoga each year, not only from the airport, but also directly from racetracks and horse farms all over the East and South, in 48-foot-long trailers with cameras that keep an eye on each horse. “Most of them come from the Belmont-Aqueduct area or the different Kentucky tracks,” Pieratt says.
While most Air Horse One landings are off-limits to the public—except on rare occasions, such as the arrival of Triple Crown-winner American Pharoah in 2015—the Sallee trucks are always an exciting sight in Saratoga. “When [locals] see the horse vans rolling in, it’s a sign that the season’s almost here,” Pieratt says. The August yearling sales at Fasig-Tipton are especially nostalgic, she says. “It’s a foggy, early Saratoga morning, and here comes a caravan of 20 horse trucks from Kentucky.”
I hear you, Nicole. When the trailers clatter into town, they remind me that Saratoga’s a special place. Sometimes, I lean out my car window and talk to the traveling horses. “How was your trip? Where do you come from?” I say. But these animals are neigh-sayers. Not one has answered me yet.