It’s boarding time for the Boeing 727 parked on the tarmac at Palm Beach International Airport, and the flight crew is ready to show passengers to their stalls.
“Bring me the filly first and put the gelding in the middle!” yells Stephen Gravett, flight supervisor for H.E. “Tex” Sutton Forwarding, one of the first companies to fly equine athletes to race tracks and show arenas, via 29 airports in the U.S. and Canada.
And these commuters fly in first-class style: Non-stop itineraries. In-flight snacks. Plenty of leg room.
No wonder the Sutton Forwarding flagship has been dubbed “Air Horse One.”
On this brisk, mid-February day at Gama Aviation, on the southwest side of PBIA, the flight manifest includes the names of thoroughbreds Keen Ice, Imperia and International Star; Angela Renee, Red Rifle and Pyrite Mountain; Street Babe, Bravodino and Freudie Anne, who recently won at New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack by legging out one mile, 70 yards in 1:44.50.
All nine of these horses are headed to the starting gates at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, La., and it’s costing their owners $3,500 for a one-way ticket. A cross-country flight from, say Atlantic City, N.J., to Las Vegas, Nev., goes for $5,000.
But that’s pocket change to the hands that hold these purse strings, Gravett says.
“When you’re spending two to three million dollars on a horse, $5,000? You don’t care. Plus, the horses are winning races, and they’re going to pay their way.”
At this time of year, PBIA is a frequent stop on the equine circuit. Already this week, Sutton has landed here, then departed from here, twice. “Most horses come south for the winter,” says Gravett, a third-generation horseman. “It’s much nicer here than in New York or Lexington, Ky.,” where Sutton is based.
And while Wellington is known internationally as home to the International Polo Club and Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, South Florida also is a hub of horse-racing.
Think Hialeah Park, Hallandale’s Gulf Stream Park, Mardi Gras Racetrack in Hallandale Beach and Pompano Park in Pompano Beach. Race horses also put in their laps at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach and Palm Beach Downs Training Center in Delray Beach.
Sutton Forwarding prefers PBIA to Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport or Miami International Airport, Gravett says, because of its easy access. Maneuvering a 52-foot trailer through the Golden Glades interchange? Whoa! No.
After all, the aim of horse-transport companies is to keep their precious cargo calm, of course, of course.
And from the time these travelers are loaded into a van at a stable in one state, until they’re led into the barn in another, their feet never touch the ground. Custom-designed loading ramps with high walls allow the horses to walk directly onto the plane from the truck that brought them to the airport.
“It’s easier on the horse, and a lot safer,” Gravett says. “They don’t know the difference. They think they’re getting on another truck.”
Most of the horses fly with their grooms, and their personal, round bales of hay — about the size of a fitness ball — are hung in their stalls. Says Gravett, “We want to keep them quiet and happy as best we can.”
That’s part of the reason horse handler Shawn Schlenk is so openly affectionate with these 1,100-pound neigh-sayers, gently patting them on the neck, kissing one on the face, praising another with a “good boy” when the colt boards the plane. “If you’re nice to them, they’re nice to you,” he says. “If a horse is happy, everyone is happy.”
As each horse enters the aircraft (an ex-Eastern Air Lines plane put out to pasture), a stall is quickly constructed around him or her. Fillies fill the back, colts go in the front, Gravett says, “so the colts aren’t smelling and staring at the fillies for four hours.”
The entire boarding process takes less than 45 minutes. And then it’s time for takeoff.
The lack of seat belts changes the way this passenger plane is flown, says Capt. Alan MacDonald: Gentle ascents, 15-degree banks (as opposed to the standard 30-degree turns) and, when landing, slow decelerations that require the length of the runway.
If MacDonald slammed on the brakes upon touchdown, “the horses would get nervous and try to sit down,” he says. “We don’t want them to feel us moving the airplane, so it requires a lot of finesse,” which means more hand-flying and less autopilot.
Pilots also circumvent bad weather, flying hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid a thunderstorm, if necessary, “and sometimes we’ll just say, ‘Let’s go tomorrow’,” MacDonald says.
And what kind of passengers does the pilot prefer to transport — human or equine?
“Oh, horses,” he says. “Definitely.”
IF YOU GO
There’s still time this season to take in a horse or pony show.
The Winter Equestrian Festival runs through March 29.
With 18 competition arenas, the Winter Equestrian Festival is the largest circuit in horse sport and boasts three months of jumping and dressage competitions.
Each show week starts on Wednesday and concludes on Sunday. For the complete schedule, go to pbiec.coth.com.
Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, 3400 Equestrian Club Drive, Wellington, 561-793-JUMP, EquestrianSport.com
International Polo Club Palm Beach’s season continues through April 19.
Every Sunday, spectators are invited to watch the fast-paced polo action from private boxes, the grandstand, lawn seats or tailgating tents. The club’s Sunday brunch, as well as its Champagne-sipping and divot-stomping, has almost as many fans as the sport of kings.
Tickets start at $10, and gates open at 9 a.m.
3667 120th Ave. South, Wellington, 561-282-5290, InternationalPoloClub.com
Equine facts — by the numbers
15,000: Number of horses in Palm Beach County during winter equestrian season, which runs January through April.
24 miles: How long a lineup of those horses would measure, if they stood nose to tail.
2,600: Number of horses in Wellington during the summer.
3.2 million square feet (73.5 acres): Estimated total barn square footage in Wellington.
$220 million: Estimated amount generated during season for western communities through horse-related activities.
66: Number of countries represented each season at Palm Beach International Polo Club.
$8 million: Amount of prize money up for grabs at Winter Equestrian Festival.
250,000: Number of spectators who attend the 12-week festival.
Sources: Wellington’s Strategic Planning Department, Palm Beach International Polo Club, Winter Equestrian Festival