As the Boeing 727 taxis on a remote runway at Ontario airport, east of Los Angeles, H.E. (Tex) Sutton, 66, whose equine air charter business flies the top racehorses around the country, is standing on the tarmac. He signals thumbs-up to the pilot peering from the cockpit, and heads back to his car.
Minutes before, the 727 had landed and stopped just long enough for 18 thoroughbreds to debark, the plane to be refueled and a new group of four-legged passengers to be led aboard for a flight to New York. Sutton was pleased that all had gone well—the thought of a loose horse galloping across runways at a congested airport isn't pleasant. "I've never had a horse seriously hurt," he says. "My men are the best in the business. They work well together, and they know what to look out for."
Each year Sutton transports nearly 3,000 horses in his leased jet. John Henry, Secretariat, Spectacular Bid, Foolish Pleasure, Affirmed and Alydar are all among his former passengers. In fact, of the last 21 Kentucky Derby winners, 17 arrived in the Bluegrass State on a Sutton plane.
Sutton charges about $3,200 for a one-way ticket from New York to California if the plane, which holds 18 horses, is fully booked. The fewer horses there are on board, the higher the fee. Occasionally a good horse will fly cross-country alone—at a cost of about $37,000. Sutton's business grosses close to $6 million annually.
A lot of hay, you say. But Sutton explains that stakes-caliber horses must travel extensively to compete for the best purses. "Flying is much easier on a horse than vanning for long distances," he says. Further, there is virtually no "off" time, because a horse can fly one day and race the next.
Indeed, on a recent 4½-hour flight from Lexington, Ky., to the Ontario airport, the horses seemed to be very relaxed. During the journey they stood three abreast in their individual portable metal stalls (which Sutton designed) on six rows of pallets secured to the fuselage. The windows were covered, and in the dim interior the horses placidly munched hay.
To make sure their flights are as smooth as possible, Sutton's pilots get permission from flight controllers to take off and land more gradually than usual. They fly around bad weather and sometimes even land and wait out storms if necessary. The horses are tended to by seven of Sutton's 12 employees, who station themselves in the narrow aisles separating the pallets. "Tex is pretty particular," says Norm McClements, who began working for Sutton 19 years ago. "He built his business by being that way."
Actually, Sutton got into the horse-moving business by accident. After running away from his parents' home in Lamesa, Texas, at age 11, he worked all over the country as jockey valet, hotwalker, groom and trainer before becoming a farm manager for Texas oilman Ralph Lowe. When Lowe asked him in 1953 to take a few horses to California, Sutton leased a railcar and had no trouble filling it with horses for the return trip. Later that year he started the H.E. (Tex) Sutton Forwarding Co. In 1969 he switched from railcars to prop planes, and more recently he began using jets.
Although he calls Lexington home—that's where his wife, Marjorie, and a daughter and her family live—Sutton is somewhat like the spirited creatures he whisks around the country. He is constantly on the go, working out of his Arcadia, Calif., or New York City office, spending time when he can in his log cabin in Hot Springs, Ark., and hanging out in the world of track kitchens and shedrows.
"Hey, Tex, how ya doin'?" a trainer at Santa Anita yells. "Got a mare I have to get to Florida." Sutton rummages through his pocket for the following week's flight schedule.
Sutton doesn't believe in advertising. "I let my reputation do the talking," he says. He treats every horse as if it were a champion, pointing out, "People who pay me to fly their horses love them regardless of their worth. One day I was talking to the owner of a horse that races as a $6,500 claimer. The horse was a gutsy little guy, and I told the owner, 'If he wins, I'll get him home in style.' "
Sure enough, the next day the claimer was six miles high, standing next to a half-million-dollar winner, enjoying a free ride compliments of Sutton. "I probably have more friends than anybody," he says. "You could say I lead a pretty dull life. I don't have any hobbies. I don't dance. I don't play golf. Mostly I just like to visit the backstretch of a racetrack."
Veda Eddy, a free-lancer, has written several articles on horses and related subjects for SI.