On Sunday night at Stansted airport, about 65 kilometres north of London, the silhouette of the giant Saudi Arabian-owned jumbo jet penetrates the gloom on an evening of driving wind and rain.
The perimeter arc lights reflect off the white and green livery of the aircraft as it sits on the tarmac ready for its cargo to enter the cavernous hold.
The freight, however, is not a fleet of cars or consumer goods for export, but 17 of the world’s leading thoroughbred racehorses, among them the cream of British and Irish racing. The cargo is worth, if not quite its weight in gold, then not far off it; certainly tens of millions of dollars.
Their destination is Riyadh, a six and half hour flight away, and the destination of the world’s richest race, the Saudi Cup, which takes place on Saturday. The total prize money involved in the meet is $35 million, with the winner of the main event receiving $10m.
Among the passengers on this flight is the colt Mishriff, the reigning champion, owned and bred by Prince Abdul Rahman Al Faisal, grandson of the late King Faisal.
He is trained by John Gosden in Newmarket, the headquarters of British racing.
The two-day meeting is so prestigious that the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia has financed the charter from Saudia Cargo, a subsidiary of Saudi Airlines.
The cost? $440,000.
The cargo area at Stansted, far away from the main terminal, is a hive of activity as handlers in their fluorescent yellow jackets and heads bowed to the elements undertake the complex loading operation.
Mobile jet stalls about one metre wide and by three metres long are towed slowly across the perimeter, ready to be hoisted skywards.
They have come 180 metres from what is called the boarder inspection post, a portal through the security fence. It is in effect a large shed with sliding doors at each end that separates the two sides of the airport.
The horses arrive from their respective stables, mainly transported in a fleet of red-liveried horse boxes belonging to the British Bloodstock Agency. The BBA is one of the world’s leading equine shipping agents.
Each trainer sends tailored feed, water and supplements for each horse. Contamination is an issue and with so much at stake, no chances can be taken.
Kevin Needham, the owner of the company, oversees the operation. Overall, he has been responsible for about 90 horses heading to the kingdom for this weekend’s event.
Apart from the flight from Stansted, others have left from Japan, the US and the UAE. It is a carefully choreographed operation with many potential pitfalls.
“All the horses are going in wide stalls,” he explains. “One to a box is first class, two is business and three, economy. These are all going in comfort.
“Horses are used to travelling in horse boxes and this is not much different; it’s just there are less roundabouts in the air!
“When you move a horse, there is a risk. It can put its foot down wrong, it can trip, it can slip, do any number of things. You cover as many of the angles you possibly can to minimise the risk. It is, however, a reasonably well-trodden path and, God willing, it goes well.”
The boxes are manoeuvred towards a livestock loading platform and the horses are led down individually. Each horse’s paperwork, including health certificate and equine passport, is handed to the head flying groom, Brian Taylor. He is a 40-year veteran of the industry and leads a team of three grooms who will travel to the kingdom in tandem with an experienced vet.
This is Mr Taylor’s fourth flight of the week. His body clock, he said with a laugh, is non-existent.
“I’m never anywhere long enough to get jet lag,” he added.
“I oversee how they are loaded and how they are on the aircraft during the flight. Airflow to the horses is the most important thing.
“The business has changed a lot. It is much better, easier and safer now. ”
As the horses — most of whom are used to flying — wait patiently to go through the holding area, the vet, Gordon Sidlow, casts his eye over them. Mr Sidlow is on the lookout for any sign that a horse is in potential distress.
“The main thing is a horse getting panicky normally when they are loading. The commonest cause for that is claustrophobia.
“The actual flying doesn’t bother them. Apart from that, we look for signs for them getting sick on the plane. As long as they are eating and drinking, there is not too much wrong with them. If they aren’t, we look more closely. It may well be a sign they are sick.
“Normally it is due to dehydration. I can treat them with sedatives and fluids. I have a wide range of drugs available. Horses lose at least about 15-20 kilograms during a flight depending upon how much they sweat. Some horses do get equine jet lag.”
As the jet stalls trundle across the tarmac, the wind speed rises to such a level that the loading doors have to be closed for safety reasons. The airport grinds to a halt — flights circle, unable to land, take offs are pushed back.
When it is safe to do so, the stalls are propelled on to a giant platform, 20 metres above ground level. From there, they slide into position on a powered roller system and locked down.
On board is Jeremy Instone, owner of Instone Air, the company that builds and leases a fleet of specialist horse stalls for air freight. He has 500 stalls, each worth about $55,000, dotted around the world in key locations such as Dubai, Riyadh, America, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore.
“When we started in 1980 the stalls were just bits of wood joined together with screws, with no tops, open tops. It was fairly basic,” he explains.
The advent of wide-bodied jets such as the Boeing 747, regarded as the work horse of the skies, and the 777 led to significant change and the new design of enclosed stalls is now the size of a standard pallet.
Among the horses being loaded is Happy Power, a colt from the 230-strong stable of Andrew Balding at Kingsclere in Hampshire. Annalisa Balding, the trainer’s wife, oversaw his departure.
The 5-year-old has never flown before but is relaxed as Kevin Hunt, one of the head lads, puts protective tape around his hooves and pads around his lower legs.
He is then walked up to the waiting lorry and loaded. He will be met in Riyadh by Charlie Richards, his regular groom, who has flown ahead. Maddy O’Meara, the travelling head girl who is already in Qatar, will travel across to ride the horse out when he arrives.
“We have about 50 horses owned by Arab owners. They are so passionate about the sport and [are] important for it,” explains Mrs Balding.
An hour and a half later than expected, the plane takes off. At dawn, it lands safely in Riyadh in vastly better weather. In a seamless operation, the horses disembark, go straight through to a horse box and are soon at the racecourse stables. From wheels down to the stable is barely an hour.
Back in his office in Newmarket, Mr Needham receives the news that everyone is safe and well. It is a relief.
“Apart from the awful weather at Stansted, it all went smoothly. With such valuable cargo, it’s a real relief!”