Seventeen years ago Johnny McCabe watched two unhappy racehorses being hoisted aboard a plane scheduled for Chicago, and it gave him an idea. The horses were Rippey and Cosmic Bomb, owned by William Helis. "They were scared to death, and no wonder," McCabe recalls. "The work crew was using a forklift, with a movable platform that kept rattling back and forth. A forklift is like the hoist used in service stations to lift cars up for repair work. It made the colts panicky, and the crew wasn't having much fun either. It took well over an hour to get the horses aboard. I wondered what kind of shape they'd be in at the end of the flight, and if they'd have to go through the whole jittery business again at the terminal. I thought: there must be an easier way to do this."
That was the idea as it came to him in 1946 and, with a $500 investment to start with, McCabe turned it into a reality. Today, at 43, he heads a horse transport business that grosses more than $1 million a year. He likes to be called the Flying Horseman; in prosier terms McCabe is the world's leading freight shipper of racehorses.
McCabe, a graduate of Manhattan High School of Aviation Training, had been in the Naval Air Transport Service in World War II, and had been employed as a mechanic and flight engineer by American Airlines. Out of all this experience came the technique for getting horses aboard a plane without giving them nervous breakdowns. He designed and patented a portable aluminum ramp that could be folded up like a jackknife and carried in a plane. Tests proved it safe; the airlines welcomed it, for it made the loading of horses almost as easy as walking them around a paddock.
As a youngster, John had galloped horses for the veteran trainers Max and Buddy Hirsch. "I've known and loved horses ever since I was a kid," McCabe says. "Maybe that's why things turned out so well. In the last 15 years we have flown horses from 25 countries. We have handled about $10 billion in horseflesh in that time. Business continues to grow and, with harness racing tracks springing up all over the country, there is no telling just when the ceiling will be reached.
May 19, 1963
"In 1961 I started leasing CL-44s—turboprop planes—from The Flying Tiger Line and Seaboard World Airlines. These ships have a cruising speed of 550 mph and each can accommodate 22 horses and personnel. On these jobs a horse can move right from the van into the plane, which opens from the back. There is no more hoisting, yanking, shoving or confusion. Horse flying is a big business today, and nothing is too good for our four-legged passengers."
Today virtually all major airlines have cargo planes for lease to the McCabe Agency. All flying stables are pressurized, so pilots can fly over any bad weather. The ships are heavily padded and each horse has his own stall with sawdust on the floor, plus ample supplies of hay and drinking water.
In 1952 John D. Schapiro, president of the Laurel, Md. racetrack, asked McCabe if he thought it practical to stage an international race with the champions of all the countries in the world participating.
"I told him that not only was it practical but that I would guarantee to have any horse he wanted on hand fit as a fiddle," says McCabe. "Every year since, the best in the world have come from all over the world to Laurel."
One of McCabe's longest flights carried a racer from Paris to Rio de Janeiro via New York—a jaunt of about 8,400 miles. "Years ago you'd be tabbed insane if you suggested that one day a pacer would leave Sydney, Australia for a junket via Singapore, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Athens, London and finally New York," says McCabe. "That's the route one of ours covered just a couple of years ago. Won his race here, too.
"Time saved is only one consideration in moving horses by air," he says. "Many horses are so high-strung they can't stand confinement of any kind. A long sea voyage or train trip could ruin them. Did you know a bad case of seasickness could kill a horse? You see, a horse cannot throw up. If one does suffer the equivalent of seasickness on a flight he gives evidence of his distress by breaking out in a nervous sweat. In these instances the attendants—or grooms—are authorized to administer a tranquilizer.
"Some horses, of course, behave better than others," says McCabe. "Kelso and Crozier are wonderful shippers, but the best of them all was Round Table, the world's leading money winner. This one was a champion in the air—as he was on the ground. Though Dr. John Peters of Los Angeles, the colt's personal veterinarian, made every flight with him—from Florida to California, from California to Kentucky, to New York and back to California—Round Table never gave him a bit of trouble. A fellow would have more trouble bringing his kid across country by plane—and the kid couldn't run as fast as Round Table.
"I wish they were all like that," he says. "The first horse I ever shipped had to be the worst I have ever handled. I'll never forget him. He was called Johns Joy. I could think of a lot of other things to call him. He was a real screwball, and you couldn't do a thing with him. This horse just did not want to ship—by van, truck, boat or any other way. He wanted to run when he got out on that track (he was a crackajack sprinter) but off the course he demanded privacy—or else.
"God knows how many vans and stalls he wrecked when his precious privacy was disturbed. And this is the one I inherited for my 'maiden' or inaugural shipment in 1949. We have one groom, usually, for every three horses, and I told my man to have his hypodermic, with a supply of Sparine [a tranquilizer], ready at all times.
"If we didn't keep this one under control, there'd be a tragedy and my 'flying horse' business would be over before it was even under way. The groom told me later he had a riotous trip. The entire crew was hopping out of his way all the way to Chicago—so they wouldn't get jabbed with that needle!"
But most horses are docile in flight, according to McCabe. There are no windows on the plane, so they have privacy and a minimum of outer disturbance. All horses wear leather helmets, something like football headgear, with spaces cut off the top for their ears to slip through. All have rubber knee guards and are bandaged on all legs. They stand in stalls seven feet long by three and a half feet wide, with a single hoop over the top to prevent them from rearing. Brood mares and their foals share specially constructed, extra large, eight-by-eight-foot stalls and are together through every flight.
The John J. McCabe Agency, Inc., located in Elmont, on Long Island, employs a staff of seven, including two secretaries who, McCabe says, run up an average monthly phone bill of $1,500. Most of the firm's business is transacted by phone, wire or teletype, with agents in all parts of the world.
McCabe has 14 men with pickup trucks, ramps, hoists and shipping gear of every kind, in every strategic pickup spot around the country. They are ready to service owners any hour of the day or night.
Rates vary according to the number of horses shipped and the availability of equipment. If a plane must be ferried from Chicago to New York for a job, the customer has to pay the ferry charges. Some sample rates are: Miami to New York $720; New York to Los Angeles $1,380, barn to barn. The rate from Shannon, Ireland to New York is $1,450; fares from Frankfurt, Paris and Rome are slightly higher.
All horses are insured with Lloyd's of London. "The owner pays $1 premium for every $ 1,000 valuation of the horse," says McCabe. "Carry Back, for example, was insured for $750,000."
McCabe's fees include van service, feed, rental of plane and, in most cases, groom charges. "Horse hotels" exist at major transfer points. The ASPCA opened its first horse hotel at Idlewild Airport in New York about five years ago. Similar accommodations are located in Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. They provide heated barns, well-lighted box stalls which can house more than a dozen horses, and a paddock for exercise.
Like any business, flying horses has its problems. "In my very first year," recalls McCabe, "a crack French stallion named Djelal, bought for the stud by an American syndicate headed by A. B. Hancock Jr. for $250,000, went wild in a plane about an hour out of Orly Field, Paris. The horse started kicking in panic and broke a left foreleg on the side of a huge box. By the time the plane got to London, poor Djelal was dead. The horse undoubtedly had been panicked by the continued barking of some 40 K-9 police dogs being returned on the same plane by the U.S. Army.
"But on the whole we have been very lucky. I have had just one horse go berserk in 15 years. This was a yearling, one of a shipment of 12, which went wild on a flight and had to be destroyed by the captain so that the rest of them wouldn't be panicked.
"We once had a horse named Lights Up," says McCabe, "and after he had been loaded he kicked open an unfastened hatch and wound up with his hind quarters in the rear baggage compartment. I didn't know how we'd ever get him out of there without scaring the life out of him. We decided to knock him out with an injection, and proceeded to shovel sand into the baggage space so he'd have something familiar to stand on.
"I was dying, but the owner wasn't concerned. He was covered by insurance. I was thinking about the future of my company. I had the ASPCA men crazy, telling them not to hurt the horse. As if they consciously would.
"Believe it or not, Lights Up came out of it perfectly. He straightened up without a whimper. Straightened up and flew right, you might say. But I wasn't right for a couple of days."
The McCabe Agency has a complaint department, of course. "What business hasn't?" says McCabe. "Many owners start complaining the minute there is any delay—for any reason—at the airport. Perhaps we have to have an additional weather or mechanical check. They demand to know what is holding things up. They don't seem to realize we are only taking precautions for the safety of the very valuable cargo they have placed in our care.
"We are glad that the horses can't hear—or understand—them. I haven't had a single complaint so far—from a horse."