Thoroughbreds with altitude take flight

Richard Edmondson samples the care in the air taken to ensure that Britain's visitors on a weekend excursion to France are fit to wing in
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It is a dark and relatively cool morning at Carlburg stables, famously the earliest risers in Newmarket. Sayyedati is fed as normal at the beginning of a weekend that will culminate in an assault on the Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville.

The English have found it difficult to trust anything French ever since William the Conqueror and his flotilla arrived, and, on the journey to the invader's Normandy homeland, John Spouse, Carlburg's travelling head lad, packs all Sayyedati will need for the weekend.

He collects the molasses, oats, bread, bran, carrots, chopped hay, glucose and water the mare will consume. He also prepares the bedding (that's shavings and not a sheet and pillow case). Sayyedati is led out and receives another feed at 6.45.

Wayne Dunkley, Sayyedati's lad, gets on the payphone to check the horse's odds of 5-2 for the following day. He then helps Spouse with the padding. Sayyedati's tail is tubed to prevent chafing, foam protectors go on the knees and gauze is taped to the base of the hoof to stop the plates knocking. Everything is loose fitting because at altitude horses react like human beings and joints swell like a grandmother's ankles.

Sayyedati wanders up the gangplank - the first of six such occasions - when she enters the Mercedes horsebox of her trainer, Clive Brittain. On the hour-long journey to Stansted airport, Spouse checks Sayyedati's orange passport. It bears stamps from Ireland, France, the United States and Japan.

Arrive at Stansted and rendezvous with two other Newmarket horses, Tamayaz and Nicolotte, whose skull guard with a plate down his nose makes him look like a Roman centurion. Transferred into the care of the venture's flying grooms, David Bartle and George Roth.

At bay five of the cargo zone, TNT's BAe146 is being prepared. The four- engined craft is known colloquially as the whispering jet and more officially as the QT, the quiet trader.

If it appears unnatural packaging a thoroughbred into a horsebox, this takes incredulity one step further. The travellers are led up a ramp into the windowless, dimly lit fuselage, in which the ceiling is just over their head. It is rather like being stuffed into a huge cigar tube. Once on board, each is quickly surrounded with interlocking metal plates that form a large crate. The lads keep hold of the bridles at all times.

Take off. For animals that have a reputation for brittle temperament the three highly-strung creatures of the plains behave astonishingly well. Sayyedati is slightly creamy with sweat and the colts shuffle a little as the tarmac is left behind.

Pegasus has not been the only flying horse for some time now; indeed as far back as 1949, Vincent O'Brien flew horses to the Cheltenham Festival in a converted bomber.

Dave Bartle has been flying horses for over 30 years, so it may be safe to assume he knows what he is doing. He was in charge two years ago when the Breeders' Cup airborne caravan hit some turbulence and plunged 200ft and the plane for this expedition is the exact one dented by Presenting's thrashings earlier this season on his way to the Irish Derby.

Bartle remembers the equine celebrities like a London cabbie. "I flew that Lammtarra to Dubai," he says of the subsequent Derby winner. Never far from his side is the formidable cow-collar to pull down any passenger trying to vacate his box.

The in-flight meal is hay. On longer journeys horses can be pumped intravenously before travel with electrolytes, to put in minerals that will be lost. Alternatively a solution is squirted on to the tongue in the air. A portable manger is also clipped to the side of the box.

Touch down at Deauville's St Gatien airport and a relief that never lessens for the flying grooms. "The only time you can say they have travelled well is the moment they take their last foot off the bottom of the ramp at the other end," Bartle says. "But nine times out of 10 it's smoother than road transport. There aren't any roundabouts in the air are there?"

Sayyedati completes her second box journey, to the Deauville racecourse stables, and she is hosed down by Dunkley. The mare goes back to her box, her outward journey complete. She leans on the wall and relieves herself.

Throughout the weekend Sayyedati is kept on British time for her feeds to maintain a routine. She is led out when required.

After locking up his mare for the night, Dunkley can admire the chic of his surroundings: Les Planches, the seafront boardwalk that is unique to this resort, the casino and the polo players, which all contribute to the image of a place known alternatively as Doughville. Dunkley, however, is not looking forward to beating off the mosquitoes that night. Among the attractive half-timbered Norman buildings, the stable lads accommodation is not outstanding. "If you saw the stable lads' digs, you'd realise this is not a holiday," Wayne says. "They're crap."


Sayyedati is fed early in the morning as the stable staff talk of their meal the night before. All the boys had been out at Le Garage bistro. "It was a quiet night, we only had two carafes," Bartle is able to report. "Each."

By mid-morning the vet has arrived to check the horse's ID and passport.

What remains of Sayyedati's food is taken away and an hour later her water is removed. "She shouldn't get cramp now," Spouse says.

Clive Brittain and Brett Doyle, Sayyedati's jockey, arrive later than expected at the course by taxi as their five-seater plane, which took off from Newmarket, has been diverted to Caen, 45km away, to escape coastal fog. By one o'clock Sayyedati is in her saddling box.

The stalls flap open for the Prix Jacques le Marois. Sayyedati is last early on but takes up the running a furlong out only to be run out of first place close home by Miss Satamixa. Tamayaz is fourth, Nicolotte seventh and Brittain is unmoved by suggestions his jockey may have gone too early.

After the race a blood test and urine sample are taken by a brave man who collects the liquid with a contraption that looks as though it should be scooping minnows out of a pond. Sayyedati is hosed and drinks a bucket of water as part of her chill down.

Just before departure, Spouse observes a local custom. While the locals in this corner of France enjoy calvados, their apple brandy, as a digestif, the mare is given two bowls of bran mash to settle her stomach.

After transferring to St Gatien, Sayyedati and friends take off, leaving Kerry Packer's private helicopter behind on the tarmac. For horses that are supposed to be cranially challenged these have learned quickly. They do not budge as the plane leaves the ground, responding quietly to the whistling, stroking and cajoling of their grooms. Yearlings being transported from the sales can be more problematic and there are stories of young animals clambering out of their boxes in states of terror. The BAe146 climbs to 22,000 feet and gets up to speeds of 350 knots (400mph).

Terra firma is reached and the Newmarket grooms bid farewell to the in- flight handlers from the Curragh Bloodstock Agency and Harry Parkes International Transport. An hour further on Sayyedati is welcomed back to her box by an old friend, Rubbiyati, and the pair rub noses through an adjoining grille.

The mare has lost nearly 12 kilos in weight through her exertions. The cost of her trip was around pounds 5,000, but she recouped that by earning almost pounds 48,000 in prize-money. Sayyedati has been out of her box for 33 hours but run for fewer than 100 seconds. The bolt slides across, the lock goes on and the light goes out.