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.
"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.