Liège Airport, half past four in the morning. A horse trailer arrives on the cargo car park of from the Netherlands. It’s still dark at night at one of the biggest cargo airports in Europe. An empty parking lot.
An hour later the trucks are stood in all directions. Engine noise. Headlights. Forklift trucks driving backwards and forwards. The babble of voices. People with horse passports. People with water canisters. People with hay nets. Neighing. Snorting. Horses kicking against the walls of the horseboxes. “At the moment, it all seems to be total chaos. But once we have started loading, everything will run like clockwork,” promises a man in accent-free English. He is wearing a yellow safety vest, which identifies him as being a member of the airport team. On the other hand, the fact that he speaks perfect English distinguishes Jon Garner from most of his colleagues on-site, because he is not Belgian. The Show Director of Spruce Meadows has travelled here from Calgary personally this afternoon to have the 67 horses from eight nations flown to his hometown. To the famous Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ – the second leg in the year of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping.
Among them, “Hello Sanctos”, that outstanding horse, who could turn his rider into a legend next Sunday: After the British show-jumper, Scott Brash, was able to win two Major shows in succession, he now only needs to ride to victory in Spruce Meadows to go down in history as the first rider ever to win the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping.
However, “Sanctos” shows no trace of all this commotion about this unique opportunity. He was one of the last horses to arrive at the airport at around twenty to eight, he is chomping away at his hay happily, looking out of the window of the horsebox, while things are gradually calming down on the car park. The equipment has been stowed away, the explosive dogs have examined all of the palettes, the paperwork has been checked: Everything is ready to start loading the horses into the Boeing 747.
26 cargo boxes are at hand for this purpose. “Sanctos” is going to share his box with his stablemate “Forever”. The two geldings have got a box all to themselves – “Business Class” with more legroom. A luxury that around a third of the horses can enjoy. Otherwise, three horses travel together in each cargo box. “It depends on the owner’s booking and how well the horses get on with each other. We basically try to transport horses from the same stable together, because they already know each other. But, of course, we can’t put a stallion next to a mare and in the case of two stallions, we usually leave the middle compartment free,” says Jon Garner, explaining the system behind his loading plan, which will get underway at 8 o’clock on the dot with the first pair of horses.
Two stallions from the Netherlands trample up the loading ramp into the cargo box. The grooms lead them into the compartment from the rear side and tie the horses up at the front. The airport team close the hinged doors behind them. Jon Garner also sets to work, helping with each horse with a skilful hand.
Once all of the horses have been loaded into the box, the grooms use the side doors to provide them with food and water for the duration of the flight. Then, it is time to say goodbye. The horses are placed inside the airplane using a hydraulic lift, the grooms set off for home again for the time being. Only three of them are allowed to accompany the flight to Calgary together with Jon Garner, a further colleague from Spruce Meadows and a veterinarian. Hannah Colman, the groom of “Sanctos”, is one of them: “I am delighted that I am allowed to fly with him. He actually doesn’t mind travelling, whether by truck or by plane. But it puts my mind at rest, if I can be close to him the whole time.” Scott Brash isn’t flying to Calgary until two days’ time. Hannah will prepare “Sanctos” for the big challenge until he arrives. “We are a bit nervous, because Scott and “Sanctos” have to qualify for the Grand Prix on Sunday first. But “Sanctos” is in good shape,” she said glancing at her protégé, who is still busy with his breakfast. He is still got plenty of time to finish, because he is not due to board until 11 o’clock.
Hannah gets “Sanctos” out of the truck at five to eleven and everything runs smoothly: Half an hour later he is already stood in his temporary stable in the airplane, next to “Forever”. Row nine, on the left-hand side. Two cargo boxes per row only leave the crew an arm’s length of space at the outside of the cargo room to squeeze by from horse to horse. Neither the loud roaring of the airplane, nor the confined space seem to bother “Sanctos”. Even when the next box docks on with a jerk, he carries on nibbling away at his hay, dunking it in the bucket of water now and again.
At 12 o’clock Jon Garner finally closes the gates of the 26th cargo box. He wipes the sweat from his brow with his sleeve. A short breather, before checking to see that everything is okay inside the airplane. Everything is checked once again: The condition of the horses, the boxes, the palettes carrying the equipment, the paperwork. Thoroughness takes time. So, it is 2 o’clock by the time Jon Garner comes out of the airplane one last time, carrying the yellow safety vest in his hand. Everything is fine. Everything is ready for take-off. The vest can be handed back to his colleagues from Belgium. At the bottom of the steps he gives everyone a hug goodbye. Then, Jon Garner goes back inside the airplane. Back to his 67 protégés, together with them back to his homeland, back to his show. A show at which one of these protégés could write sporting history on Sunday.