(from Turf and Sport Digest, Feb 1966.)
“I’m not a race rider but I am a horse jockey. My pony is a giant of the highways, a cab-over tractor sitting on 190 horses pulling a 12- horse van. I’m equally proud of those giants of the Turf which have been safely jockeyed into stalls on the rig I operate. Lucky Debonair, Lt. Stevens and Gun Bow have been among my history-making passengers.
Tom Rolfe, another racing great, walked calmly off my van to win the 1965 Preakness at Pimlico Race Track. His trainer, Frank Whiteley, Jr., usually rides the trailer with his horses. He says, “Vanning doesn’t lessen our chances to win if the driver is careful and the horse is a good shipper.”
Unfortunately, not all thoroughbreds are well-mannered. needing constant attention while in transit. The mistakes of the driver or trainer can also raise havoc.
While hauling from the races at Bowie Race Course. a certain trainer approached us with. “I’ve claimed a horse. Will you take him to Laurel?”
Upon my affirmative answer he departed and presently returned leading a gelding. We loaded this runner in a single stall. his head facing the rear of the van. It is now my rueful recollection that the former trainer had neglected to tell the claimant the gelded one liked to ride in a double stall looking the way he was going. Therefore, our extra passenger sat down in his stall and threw a fit.
Previous to the advent of trucks, horses were shipped in railroad cars, and had to travel from the track. on the farm, to the station under their own power.
Often, they were led for many miles.
Despite the advantage of shipping direct to racetracks, some horses still go by rail.
Motor vans were first used for transporting horses in the New York City area, about the year 1915. The first carriers were moving vans with built-in stalls. Put in use before pneumatic tires were adopted they were crude but welcome carriers, and hauled three horses. Many veteran race trackers tell of walking Thoroughbreds the eleven miles from Laurel Race Course to the Bowie, Maryland, track because there was no connecting railroad.
As more racing dates were awarded to an increasing number of tracks a need for wholesale horse transportation resulted. Thus, the capacity of vans increased to six, nine, and 12 horses.
A pioneer in the designing of horse vans is Clarence Mills, of Laurel, Maryland, whose firm services racing stables in 19 states east of the Mississippi River. He was the first to build a 12-horse van .
“After enlarging a six-horse van to one carrying nine Thoroughbreds,” says Mills, “the next step was to a 12-horse van. Indeed, the horsemen demanded it.”
His sons, Vernon and Glenn, concur. The truck manufacturer provides the chassis, body and aluminum shell. Mills has designed a “standard” interior for a 40-foot trailer. In preparing the van for use, his first step is the installation of an oak floor. Tar is heated and brushed atop this base to give resiliency and toughness. Horses stomping hoofs cannot tear or depreciate the flooring, and firmer footing is assured. (When the van is used, straw is placed in each occupied stall.)
Next, highly polished veneer panels are positioned on walls and ceiling. Their mirror-like finish would add beauty to any home. Veneer panels are also used as sideboards for the removable stalls. Hooks on the walls and post pins are placed at intervals, the width of the van, permitting the quick installation of two or three stalls. When horses are located aboard the van, two tie ropes are secured from bridle to stall posts. A breast bar, the width of the van, is placed in front of the occupants to prevent them from lunging forward.
There are four areas where loading and unloading may be accomplished. There is the popular chute that all major tracks provide. This is a grass-covered mound about three feet high held firm by a retaining wall. It is the driver’s responsibility to pull the rig close to the wall until van doors line up with the chute. One end of a short, sturdy ramp is hooked to the trailer, and the other end is placed on the grass. With this type of chute, there is little or no slope. The horse walks straight off the van onto the ground.
Method two is called, “dropping the chute.” Under the van is a substantially built board seven feet long. and 40 inches wide, covered with strips of fire hose for better footing. The incline from the van to the ground is steep. Naturally the responsibility of horsemen and driver is increased.
So, for additional safety. Side racks are stood upright on both sides of the board. Tied by leather thongs to screws on the wall of the trailer, they remain in place until loading or unloading is completed. Vanning horses to and from railroads is relatively easy as the freight dock lines up with the floor of the van. Generally, the horses are taken to the dock and marched through the freight loading area into the railroad car. If necessary, the truck chute may be dropped, and horses loaded via the railroad car ramp.
The fourth area to which my work takes me is the airport, Here. great giants of the sky bring in and take out cargoes of horses. At Baltimore’s Friendship International Airport, I’ve met some of the sporting world’s most famous people and their horses. The Washington D.C. International attracts equines of top calibre.
It is noteworthy to mention that the Laurel Race Course provides free transportation from any point on earth to all foreign horses appearing in the International.
Because the Thoroughbreds transported by planes are top flighters, the responsibilities of attending personnel are multiplied many times.
Once clearance is received to drive onto the apron I am led by a jeep which bears a big “Follow Me” sign. At the plane the hugeness of the aircraft is accentuated by the portable steel ramp used for loading. It is 17 feet high from the plane floor (or deck) to the ground, and the ramp inclines at a 33 degree angle. The sides of the chute are three feet high; the floor covering is rubber.
When transferring horses from van to plane, the truck must be positioned so that the door and plane chute will meet. There is no room for maneuvering as the van is backed under the sun-shaded wings of the airship. Properly placed, there is less than six inches from rear of van to forward wing of plane. The smaller rear wing seems ready to make flight through the windshield of the truck cab. After the small chute of the trailer is hitched to that of the plane, loading may commence.
Taken from the van stalls, the horses are led by grooms up the chute to the yawning door of the craft. As they climb there should be no movement by onlookers. Sudden motion might frighten a highly tense Thoroughbred. An accident in the narrow passageway would mean certain injury to horse and groom. Because these royal horses of the Sport of Kings are well-trained, there is little difficulty with them as a rule.
Although uncommon, van fits are dangerous to grooms and van driver. The groom in the trailer is in instant personal peril. His first act, when he sees trouble developing, is to press the emergency button. The buzzer sounding, or the red light flashing, in the truck cab is guaranteed to send shivers racing along the driver’s spine. The warning means TROUBLE, as the button is pressed only in case of emergency.
The driver quickly stops the truck and hurries to the trailer door. Before opening, he will ascertain where the victim is stationed as it may have broken out of its stall. To open the door immediately would be an invitation for the horse to jump and injure itself. Actually, anything can happen, and the driver learns to expect the unexpected.
Once, while traveling through Florida, it was my experience to have a horse throw two wing-dings. The first occurred on a busy Jacksonville street.
Notoriously unruly, the stud had been heavily tranquilized before being loaded in Maryland. When the drug wore off he became obstreperous. Tied in the middle stall, he reared and threw his right front leg over the stall on his left. The first problem was to calm him. When a move was made to loosen the tie ropes he lunged again and freed his legs. Unluckily, he fell to the floor and could not arise. Kicking and scrambling he lashed out. With each frantic effort he cut himself, and the horses beside him, while we dodged his flailing hoofs.
Obviously, it was necessary to get him to his feet, To free him, we dropped the chute and unloaded the slightly injured horses on either side. Then we removed the stall boards and a very brave groom tugged on the shank till our patient struggled to his feet, very sick and very tired.
The doors, which had been closed to protect the crowd of bystanders in the event the horse got loose, were now opened. Whereupon he was led from the trailer. A veterinarian was called, and a tranquilizer administered. After the horse had been walked until he cooled out, we resumed our journey.
Twenty miles down the highway, trouble struck again. Although standing, it was apparent the stud was readying himself for another tantrum. He had probably been given an overdose of tranquilizer. The vet was hastily recalled, and a thoroughly self-injured Thoroughbred was taken to a nearby farm.
The law permits a van driver to discharge any horse that interferes with, or threatens to injure itself or other horses or persons riding in the trailer.
The cause of van fits vary. If the van takes curves too sharply a horse may be thrown down. Fast starts are frowned upon, and sudden stops are allowed only when necessary to avert a highway accident. As always, a requirement of good driving is the foresight to see the dangers forming ahead. The advantage of driving a cab-over tractor lies in the fact the operator may look over the roofs of cars ahead. This enables him to view traffic problems as they develop. He reacts accordingly.
Transporting Thoroughbreds, is not without its amusing side. Often it is the horse that provides the entertainment. Some horses playfully free the breast bar with their teeth. Others, not so playful, bite. On one occasion, I loaded three horses into a six-horse van. Two rode facing the rear of the van; one of them was a biter. The third horse was stalled opposite them; he was a breast bar puller.
While loading, the trainer advised me to secure only one tie rope to the bridle of Mr. Breast Bar. He explained, “This is the way he likes to ride.”
The trainer rode in the cab with me. We drove about two hours over the expressway, noting no unusual movement in the van. When we stopped for a coffee break,
we checked the horses.
Lo and behold, Mr. Breast Bar was head first in his stall. The evidence showed he had pulled the bar free, walked out of his stall and promptly had been bitten on the posterior by Mr. Biter.
Long-distance hauling often requires more than eight hours’ driving time. Thus, an associate driver goes along to share the work. The” copilot” will relax in the sleeper during the early pan of the ride. After four hours, there is a break to coffee up and stretch tired, aching muscles, while the grooms water the horses. When the trip is resumed, the first driver climbs into the sleeper.
Gruelling as it is, most van drivers enjoy their work. They meet some very nice people and associate with the aristocrats of the Thoroughbred world.