They're off and flying

They're off and flying
Jockey Tommy Berry guiding Dan Excel to victory in the Singapore Airlines International (SIA) Cup on 18 May 2014. Dan went one better from being in the runner-up position of the same race in 2013.

Here's a question: Can horses fly?

Pegasus could. But he had wings.

Rocket Man, too. But that's another story.

They were special. What about the others?

Like the foreign invaders to this year's Singapore Airlines International Cup.

Well, the answer is, yes.

Horses can fly. Horses do fly and some of them really enjoy flying.

Thank goodness. Can you imagine what it would be like if horses simply refused to get airborne?

There would be no international races and we wouldn't have got to see the the likes of DAN EXCEL, SHADOW GATE, JAY PEG and MUMMIFY go hell for leather over 2,000m and under the lights at Kranji.

So, thanks to SIA Cargo and other airfreight companies, horses can fly.

But, how? Are they fussy travellers? What's the price of a "ticket"? And what's it like on the Equine Express?

WELCOME ABOARD

Let's take the 2012 winner, CHINCHON. His journey would have begun in France.

Months before his date at Kranji, his connections, satisfied that he was in the form of his life, began making his travel plans - and it didn't just involve getting him a ticket - which could cost about $23,000 for a trip from Europe or the US to Singapore.

Chinchon's "papers" had to be in order. That meant blood samples had to be taken and the results entered into "papers" which travelled with the horse. That all-important veterinary certificate would have been checked before boarding and on touch-down.

Like the condition he was in, Chinchon's papers were in "tip-top" order.

Unlike human travellers, horses don't get to enjoy duty free shopping and there's no champagne on board. But it's not all "cattle class". Indeed, horses like Chinchon travel in relative comfort.

Usually, it's two horses side by side in stalls separated by wooden boards some call "sniffer" panels. You see, horses, like most other animals, are curious and prone to sniffing their "travelling companion" in the next stall.

Sometimes - though very rarely - when a stallion is placed in a stall next to a mare, the randy ol' champ can get "overexcited". So, to prevent any mile-high shenanigans, grooms have discovered that a dap of Vicks around the horse's nostril will mask the scent and calm an otherwise awkward situation.

HORSE CLASS AND HAY

Because horses, like humans, can suffer from dehydration when flying, grooms accompanying the horses ensure that there's enough water for their passengers. To a horse, water's champagne - and he gets a drink every hour.

However, at meal time, the choice is limited. It's hay, hay and more hay.

And, since there are no in-flight movies to keep the horses entertained, comfort is a priority and pilots on SIA Cargo flights take it upon themselves to make ascents and descents as gentle as possible. Indeed, some will alter course just so as to steer clear of bad weather and turbulence.

Then there's jet lag. And it affects horses just as much as it affects us - which is why horses travelling to a race like the SIA Cup, arrive here several days or even weeks before the big day, just so as to get over the effects of flying.

While there are champions who are "frequent flyers", most racehorses are not PPS members and used to long flights.

As such, some are terrified at the sound of the engines and they can suffer from sleep deprivation. Indeed, a horse could lose up to five per cent of his bodyweight after a 14-hour flight. Luckily, they are resilient and can regain that weight when allowed to settle down to a good meal in a nice stable.

What about stress? If travelling is upsetting, why not sedate the horse?

The truth be told, horses are rarely sedated. And any "flying groom" will tell you that, while they carry the equipment to sedate a horses in mid-flight, the easiest way to calm an agitated animal is to give him a loving pat on the neck and a lump of sugar.

TOUCHDOWN AND QUARANTINE

Finally, the big SIA Cargo jet touches down at Changi Airport. And since horses don't have luggage and are good to go in their birthday suits, there's no frantic rush to get the overhead compartments emptied.

Instead, the doors to the hold are opened and the horses' boxes on pallets are lowered to the tarmac. Sometimes though, the animals are led down a ramp where they are immediately inspected by veterinary surgeons from the Singapore Turf Club.

Documents are double-checked and only when everything is in order are they loaded onto "floats" and driven to the international stables at Kranji.

Because of the stringent quarantine laws, the overseas horses and the "local" horses don't get to socialise. Indeed, their paths never cross, until a half-hour before the big race.

There, in the mounting yard, with coats gleaming, nostrils flaring and hearts pumping, they finally get to size up the local brigade.

YES, 'HORSES CAN FLY'

Then it's off to the start. Give or take a second or two, 120 is the magic number. One hundred and twenty pulsating seconds. In that time, a horse from a faraway land will be first to hit the finish line in tomorrow's Singapore Airlines International Cup.

Then, the celebrations. There will be a fusillade of "pops" from champagne bottles. The trainer will be feted for a job well done. The jockey hailed as the mightiest flyweight on Planet Earth. The owner compensated for the sum he paid at the sales some years ago.

As for the horse who had run the race of his life, he will be alone in his stall.

Earlier, he would have enjoyed a cooling hose down. If lucky, his groom would have tossed him a juicy carrot. Tomorrow or the day after, he will be transported to Changi Airport where a jet from SIA Cargo will fly him home.

Last year, Dan Excel won the race after making that short trip from Hong Kong. Tomorrow night, horses from six countries will compete for the prize. It will be a spectacle of a horse race - and one which will put to rest the mystery of flying horses.

Yes, thanks in part to some massive 747s from SIA Cargo, it is safe to say, "horses can fly".


This article was first published on May 16, 2015.
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