When sky is the limit for high fliers coming to Dubai World Cup Carnival

The logistics involved in transporting horses around the world by air are many and fairly complicated, as Sarah Tregoning finds out.

Ground staff at airports realise that horses have to be loaded on a plane with a great deal of care as they are not just any cargo.
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If horses were allowed to earn air miles, Presvis, the Dubai Duty Free winner, would be a platinum cardholder.

Luca Cumani's globetrotting star spends much of the year travelling the world in search of international honours. The jet-setter lifestyle appears to suit him. His numerous victories have earned him US$4.3m million (Dh15.8m) in prize money with Hong Kong's 2009 Audemars Piguet QEII Cup and last season's Dubai Duty Free at Meydan Racecourse representing career highlights.

Presvis is not the only frequent flyer in the racing world. By the time the Dubai World Cup meeting rolls around on the last day of March more than 200 of the world's most valuable racehorses will have jetted into the UAE from all over the globe.

Nearly 50 arrived this week from Europe, and the complex nature of the process was illustrated by the fact one of the Dubai World Cup Carnival contenders had to be sedated on the f light as he was "shouting".

He was nursed by an on-board vet and special flying grooms, who are expert horse handlers and ensure the horses have water, hay nets, shavings and equipment.

Most horses travel without shoes or, at the very least, without their hind shoes for safety reasons.

They are sometimes transported on chartered flights that also take passengers.

"I was flying back from Arlington with Cima de Triomphe on a KLM combined passenger and cargo flight," Charlie Henson, Luca Cumani's international assistant, said.

"There was a row of seats at the back and I was sitting there and a woman was sitting next to me. She started sneezing, her eyes and nose were running and she felt pretty bad.

"She turned to me and said, 'it's funny, but the only thing I'm allergic to is horses'. I said to her, 'it's funny you should say that - look behind you' and there was Cima de Triomphe's big furry head staring out of his pallet at her from the cargo section of the plane."

Then there is the problem of interaction between the horses sharing space in the hold.

"The only time I ever worried about flying with a horse was when I took Mourilyan to Woodbine for the Canadian International," Nicolas Iguacel, the assistant trainer to Herman Brown, said. "We were on the same flight as a Godolphin filly called Folk Opera, which went on to win the EP Taylor Stakes, and she kept calling out and flirting with Mourilyan.

"My boy was getting frisky and calling back to her. I had some movies on my laptop so I went into his pallet and sat in there on an upturned bucket and we watched a whole film with him standing over my shoulder. Luckily he forgot about that filly."

Loading a horse on to a plane is not, as you might suspect, as straight forward a process as a suitcase of a civilian.

"To get a horse from A to B requires planning," David Robson, the managing director of the Dubai-based horse transport company, Equitrans Logistics, said. "The country of import sets the conditions. Horses may do a period of quarantine in their home country, then there will be blood tests and vaccines. Eventually a horse will get a health certificate, which will allow them to be transported."

Equine flyers travel by lorry to the airport where they are stabled while the plane is loaded. Horses may share hold space with other cargo, so everything is weighed allowing the horses to occupy a particular place to best balance the plane in the air.

They are then led up a ramp on to a pallet, which is in turn lifted using a special fork-lift truck called a "dolly" on to the plane's runners. It is then pushed into the correct position in the hold.

Airport ground crew must be especially careful when lifting half-a-ton of racehorse, often worth millions, into the plane.

"Most of the guys are careful and understand that a horse is not just another piece of cargo," Henson said. "Sometimes you need to explain that if the pallet gets stuck on the runners as it goes into the plane, you would much rather push it by hand than use the pallet behind to shunt it into the hold."

Horses can either be permanent or temporary imports and the quarantine regulations on landing will vary accordingly.

Connections of Sweet Ducky were concerned about him when he landed in Dubai this week after he was given a tranquilliser mid-flight.

"It's quite unusual that a horse is tranquillised," Iguacel said. "When we went to see him in the International Stables the next day he was just fine. But he's an excitable horse anyway and any change from routine can upset him."

Iguacel oversaw the transport of Bankable and Mourilyan to Australia for the Melbourne Cup Carnival, a 46-hour door-to-door from Newmarket in England to Sandown in Melbourne with stops in Denmark, Sharjah and Singapore.

Henson, meanwhile, spends nine months of his year chaperoning horses on and off planes and oversees their care and training while abroad. He has been accompanying the horses since his first trip to Dubai in 2008 and will help Presvis defend his Duty Free title this year.

The rebellious temperament of Presvis - he spent the early part of Dubai World Cup week last year generally playing up, and at one point zigzagging across the track - marks him out as one of the more difficult passengers.

"Presvis has been our international flag bearer for the last three years," said Henson. "He's now very used to flying. Of course there is always a slight concern when you are flying with horses, but, generally, they cope very well."

After the Carnival Henson usually travels to Hong Kong in April, Singapore in May and returns to Cumani's English base in Newmarket for a break.

In any year he might take horses to the United States for the Arlington Million, Australia for the Melbourne Carnival and Melbourne Cup and Istanbul for Turkey's international races.

Although travelling with the horses in cargo means he misses out on the attentions of diligent cabin crew and the in-flight entertainment, Henson prefers it to economy. "I would much rather fly cargo," Henson said.

"You have more space and freedom. I just wish you could earn air miles."

Henson has seen some interesting cargo items during his travels.

"On one flight there was a tank, but the best thing I've shared a flight with was a red Ferrari," Henson said.

Asked whether he took the opportunity to sit in it he said, "No, but only because it was locked".