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Kentucky Derby horses get first-class treatment on Air Horse One

This flight service isn't horsing around.

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The Tex Sutton crew leads Bob Baffert's Derby horses off of Air Horse One. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Mike Payne is waiting by his truck in the nearly deserted cargo parking lot when we arrive at Louisville International Airport in late April. It's a chilly Saturday morning under overcast skies, but Mike isn't dressed for the weather. Instead of a coat, he's wearing a short-sleeved gray polo shirt and a matching hat, both of which are embroidered with a pegasus and the name of his transportation company, Tex Sutton, in red and white letters.

It's the pegasus that gives us a clue as to what we're about to see. We're not waiting for an ordinary cargo flight. This flight, called Air Horse One, is carrying 12 horses that will run in the Oaks Race and the Kentucky Derby.

"It's just a regular freight airplane but it becomes specialized when we install the horse stalls, the containers that hold the horses during flight," Payne says with his hands in his pockets.

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Hoofin' it to Derby

Currently the company's head of operations, Payne's been with Tex Sutton Forwarding since 1990. Tex Sutton started flying horses in 1969 and operates the only horse charter in the country that lets the horses walk directly onto the aircraft.

That arrangement is more comfortable for the horses. Generally, other transports load the horses into stalls, which can look like shipping containers. Hydraulic lifts and conveyor belts are used to get the containers on and off the plane.

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"We walk them on and walk them off," Payne says. "It's just more natural for a horse."

This Air Horse One departed for Louisville from Ontario, California, just before 7 a.m. For this trip, a horse's ticket on Air Horse One costs about $5,000, but these steeds get first-class treatment. The crew of five humans attends to the horses over the three-hour flight by feeding them hay and water and keeping the cabin at a cool 55 degrees. Payne says the cooler temperatures keep the horses docile. If it's too hot, they could get sick.  

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Though it's threatening to rain, the shower holds off until the Boeing 727-200 finally lands at 1:21 p.m., despite a delay the night before. As the plane taxis to the cargo area, Payne motions for us to follow him. It looks like any other plane to me: long and white with wings, a tail and three jet engines. There are few windows, though, and I've never seen an aircraft with these markings before. First Class Equine Air Travel is printed on the side, and the Tex Sutton pegasus logo, like the one on Payne's shirt and hat, sits on the tail.

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Air Horse One landed in Louisville on schedule Saturday. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

As the engines wind down, I wonder how the horses are going to disembark, but Payne's team is one step ahead. Around 1:30 p.m., a side hatch opens and a truck pulls a large red-and-white ramp up to the fuselage. The crew works quickly, laying astroturf-style mats and attaching barriers to the end of the ramp, before waving in the large semi that will transport the 12 horses to Churchill Downs (the 13th horse onboard is headed back to California).

The rain speckles the ground, and I'm thankful that it's a little warmer near the plane. Before long, the first horse peeks its head out and is led down into the truck. One of Payne's crew members tells me the horse's name is Roadster. Along with the next four horses off the aircraft, Roadster is going to the stables of Bob Baffert, a five-time Kentucky Derby-winning thoroughbred trainer who's handled horses like American Pharoah, Justify and War Emblem.

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A different kind of pony express

Two more horses come down the ramp before Payne motions for us to join him on board the plane. Inside Air Horse One is colder than it is outside, and it smells, unsurprisingly, like hay and manure. Having grown up in the country, I find the smell  strangely comforting.

Captain Dawn Wilcox emerges from the cockpit to greet us. She's about 5 feet tall with a kind smile. Wilcox says the flight was beautiful, but it's still nerve-wracking to be in the midst of Derby season and carrying the special cargo. She even flies the plane with the horses' well-being in mind.

"We're very conscious about giving a very comfortable ride, keeping them as happy as possible," she says. This means taking everything slower -- wider turns in the air, taking off and climbing at a slower rate, and being careful when leveling off. Air Horse One even requested a longer runway for landing, which was initially closed, but the airport opened it for them. Doing anything too suddenly could result in a horse stumbling and getting injured.

I venture further into the plane's cabin. Instead of passenger seats, overhead compartments or drink carts. there are only specialized stalls with padded sides, one for each horse. The horses are held in place by cross chains that are connected to their halters, Payne says. This keeps them from turning around. The cabin's floor is lined with sawdust and grass, and bales of hay are stacked next to some disassembled stalls.

Payne's team moves like clockwork, and soon Game Winner, Soul Streit, American Anthem and Flor de la Mar have joined Roadster in the truck. From there, we embark on the 10-minute drive to Churchill Downs, where the Derby will take place on Saturday.

Baffert is waiting for the truck when we arrive, leaning casually against a stable wall. Half a dozen awards illustrating his impressive career are displayed behind him. The rain has stopped and other media are snapping photos as the Tex Sutton team unloads the horses. The two-time Triple Crown winner greets each horse by name as they're led into the stables.

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Winning horse trainer Bob Baffert takes in the scene at Churchill Downs.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Despite the extravagant value of his horses -- he says his cargo on Air Horse One is "easily worth $30 million" -- and the long journey from California to Kentucky, Baffert looks calm. He takes a few phone calls as the horses are washed off, draped in robes and settled into their bays with bales of hay. Behind his sunglasses, I imagine he sees everyone and everything down to the smallest detail.

He says he's relieved the horses are back with him. Of course, I had to ask if he has a favorite to win on Saturday. Baffert grins and says that's a tough question. The seasoned trainer speaks highly of Roadster and Omaha Beach.

"These jockeys, you know, I think they have to ride a really smart race," Baffert said. "I think it's going to be the jockeys' race. If they ride a smart race, they can win."