When Horses Fly: The Beginnings Of Air Travel In The Racing World

by | 09.19.2019 | 5:56pm
Ribot off the plane on June 25, 1960. Heading to Darby Dan Farm. Photo by Skeets Meadors. Keeneland Library collection.

There are 20 horses cataloged for this year's Keeneland September Yearling Sale that were born overseas and arrived stateside by airplane, and considerably more of the auction's 4,644 entries will travel through the sky to destinations in different states and different hemispheres after selling to far-flung buyers.

When stacked against van and rail travel, which have hauled Thoroughbreds since the mid-1800s, and transit by ship, which has been around as long as travelers crossing the ocean have needed horses in their new destinations, air travel is a relatively new kid on the block. The Wright Brothers first left the ground in Kitty Hawk, N.C. in 1903, and the first Thoroughbred was shipped by plane a quarter-century later.

The vanguard for air travel among Thoroughbred racehorses was Wirt G. Bowman, a prized runner from the stable of California hotel and nightclub owner Baron Long. The horse was named after Long's longtime associate, who he partnered with to build the Agua Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico, among other gambling establishments.

The reasons why Long decided to fly Wirt G. Bowman the 500 miles from his stable in San Diego to Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, Calif., instead of vanning him north were not widely reported, aside from the fact that he had multiple lines of business planned for the horse. The colt was set to run in the $6,000 A.B. Spreckles Handicap at Tanforan in October 1928, but he was first offered in an auction of Long's stock in Northern California. Long held on to the horse after he finished under his reserve.

A report from the Thoroughbred Record declared the flight a success, claiming the horse “suffered no inconveniences from his trip.” A photo of Wirt G. Bowman walking down the ramp from the plane, greeted by jockey Lloyd Trimble and entertainer Jeannie Lewis made it into papers around the country.

To further drive home the point that Wirt G. Bowman emerged from the plane fresh as a daisy, he breezed three furlongs in :40 seconds over the Tanforan surface shortly after touching down.

Witnessing this display, the Thoroughbred Record's reporter painted a blue-sky picture of what air travel could hold for the future of Thoroughbred racing.

“This latest way of shipping racers will eventually become popular in that it would enable a horse to race one afternoon over the New York tracks and fill his engagement over a Chicago track the next afternoon. The world do move.”

Everything went to plan except for the race itself. Wirt G. Bowman was part of a hot pace in the Spreckles, but he faded late to finish fifth.

The next two major steps in Thoroughbred air travel happened almost simultaneously in 1946.

The first transcontinental charter from New York to California took place on May 29, carrying a pair of juvenile fillies owned by King Brothers' Stable. The Boston Globe reported that Chakoora and Uleta arrived at Hollywood Park “in good shape,” but John J. McCabe, who was a flight engineer on that maiden voyage, had a different take on the trip.

“It was a disaster,” he told the Thoroughbred Record in 1981. “Nobody knew what to do, nobody had any horse sense. Nobody knew how to ship horses, nobody knew how to handle them. It was just a messed up deal.

“But I saw a future in it,” he continued. “If somebody knew how to put everything together and get it coordinated, get cooperation, get the right equipment, things like that, there was a future in shipping horses by air.”

McCabe opened his own transport business in 1949, and shipped more than 30,000 horses by air over the next three-plus decades.

Chakoora won nine career starts, while Uleta went on to become a stakes-producing broodmare.

In November 1946, the first transatlantic air shipment of Thoroughbreds took place, escorting six horses from Ireland to California. The horses, all 2- or 3-year-old colts, had been purchased by California-based owners E.B. Johnston and Ann Peppers for a combined value of about $150,000 – about $2.1 million adjusted for inflation.

Charles Leavitt, a leading trainer in California and broker of the purchases, traveled from Ireland with the horses on the American Airlines DC-4 specially chartered for the trip, along with Phil J. Connors, the president of the Hollywood Sportsman's Club, and a crew of seven.

Traversing a total of 5,800 miles over 23 hours and 25 minutes, the passengers first flew from Ireland to Newark, N.J., then prepared for a transcontinental flight to Burbank, Calif., that featured a brief stop in St. Joseph, Mo.

Despite some of the imported horses having stakes success on their native continent, they were mostly busts when they came stateside.

The lone exception was Sullivan, a son of Panorama who came to the U.S. as a 2-year-old after finishing third in the Leopardstown Produce Stakes in Ireland. The year after his globetrotting trek, Sullivan finished third in the Will Rogers Handicap at Hollywood Park, running for Peppers. However, his greatest contribution to the sport is as the sire of the 1958 Santa Anita Derby winner and heart-stopping closer Silky Sullivan.

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