All this week, thoroughbreds from around the country have been arriving at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland with the weight of expectations on their shoulders. With Preakness Stakes entry fees costing upwards of $30,000 to enter and start, there’s no shortage of pressure on the horses, as well as the trainers, jockeys, grooms, and associated racing staff—including shippers—whose job it is to ensure the horses arrive at the track safety and in time to run the best race of their lives.
For their part, Brook Ledge Horse Transportation has shipped some of the most famous racehorses in the modern age (think: California Chrome, American Pharoah, Always Dreaming, and Justify). Just what does it take to transport the best of the best? We caught up with Brook Ledge’s Andrea Gotwals Boone to find out.
American Pharoah with Brook Ledge Owner/Founder Bill Gotwals. (c) Rick Samuels/ Brook Ledge
1. Like geese, the springtime racehorse migration moves north.
“This time of year, most trainers are shipping horses out of South Florida and New Orleans to tracks in Kentucky (Keeneland and Churchill Downs), Maryland (Monmouth Park), and New York (Saratoga and Belmont Park),” Andrea says.
2. And, like birds of a feather, they flock together.
“We try to keep ‘runners,’ as we call them, on the same van together, as they are usually going from and to the same destinations. All our trips are expedited, but whenever we have competition horses, we want to have a straight trip to their destination so they can arrive ready to continue training or in time for their race,” Andrea explains. “The ‘everyday’ horses that we move usually have multiple destinations [along a route], so it make sense, both time-wise and logistically, to keep the thoroughbreds on the same van.”
Racehorses at Louisiana Downs. (c) Flickr.com/Donnie Ray Jones
3. Shippers separate the boys and the girls into their own corners, school dance-style.
“Many of the young male horses in the thoroughbred world are not gelded, so we need to make sure we get the sexes on all the horses [before they ship],” Andrea says. “Fillies in the back, and colts in the front, so the scent from the fillies doesn’t flow back to the colts and get them excited.”
4. As you might expect, loading racehorses can be risky business.
“Our drivers know that thoroughbreds tend to be hot-blooded, and can be more fractious than the show horses and backyard horses. This said, they’re more alert to making sure that a skittish [racehorse] isn’t going to hit a hip on a sideboard. The drivers know to give them extra time to look at the ramp, and make sure they aren’t right behind them in case a leg comes flying,” Andrea says, adding that the horses’ young age (most are only two years old when they begin their racing careers) is another reason to take special care.
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5. How and when racehorses travel is a decision carefully considered by their trainers.
“Some trainers may want them moved right after the Kentucky Derby to Pimlico so they can become accustomed to the track. Others may opt to stay at Churchill Downs or go to Keeneland to train, so they are out of the limelight and away from the cameras and media before the next big race. Generally, [trainers like their horses] to be there at least three days [before the race],” says Andrea, noting that Brook Ledge shipped Trainer Bob Baffert’s Improbable into Pimlico on May 15.
6. Racehorses travel with their own entourages.
“When American Pharoah and Justify won the Kentucky Derby, Bob Baffert’s assistant trainer, Jimmy Barnes, flew with the horses from Kentucky to BWI Marshall Airport [in Baltimore] and then also accompanied them on the van to Pimlico. Many times, when the ‘big hoss’ flies, there is an assistant or groom who stays with the horse the entire trip,” Andrea explains. “Some barns have companion animals for the horses, so we have also shipped goats with the racehorses to keep them company—it’s like their security blanket.”
Justify (c) Rick Samuels/ Brook Ledge
7. Diva-like behavior is not unheard of—especially when it comes to beverages.
“We’ve had some horses that need to be watered with their own bottled FIJI only,” Andrea says. “Another horse was shipped with his own Guinness beer to keep him drinking.”
8. You think you’ve logged some frequent flier miles?
Think again. Says Andrea, “Racehorses are frequent travelers—they probably have more travel miles, overall, than any other breed of horse. They are constantly moving!”