Flying Million-Dollar Racehorses to Churchill Downs

An airline staff member feeds a race horse at the Animal Lounge at Frankfurt's international airport.
Thomas Lohnes | AFP | Getty Images
An airline staff member feeds a race horse at the Animal Lounge at Frankfurt's international airport.

LOUISVILLE, Ky.—The Kentucky Derby looks like one part frat party and one part high-society ball. In between the beer and tank tops of the infield and the seersucker suits and high hats in the box suites is a horse race.

(Read More: Kentucky Derby: A Billionaire's Bonanza)

Some of the horses come from a long way to run for the proverbial roses. Anyone ask how they get to Kentucky? Probably not.

Take "Lines of Battle," a horse that had to get from Ireland to Louisville.

"The transport company in Ireland diverted a plane to depart from Shannon, Ireland, to fly directly into Chicago because there's no direct flights into Louisville," said Matt Haug, director of operations for International Racehorse Transport.

"We transferred him to a private charter, which he was loaded onto and flew straight down here, got here about 2 a.m. and brought him here to Churchill Downs."

The horse then is quarantined for 42 hours and only gets one day to practice before running the best-known horse race on the planet.

"It's by design," Haug said. "They'll come in late like this, so it's under their care for as long as possible. "They found the best way is to fly in and we call it 'running off the plane' and the horse just literally gets here and runs off the plane and before they have a chance to even try to get acclimated."

Haug has seen the approach lead to some big wins, but not the Derby.

The rationale means little to International Racehorse Transport. They do whatever is wanted and needed to get the horse to the race.

(Read More: Got $1,000? Mint Juleps Can Be Costly Kentucky Derby Classic)

"We organize everything from barn to barn," he said. "We organize the vets, the trucking, the farms, the quarantines, the grooms that fly with the horses, the air freight, the planes, everything that's involved with shipping horses internationally.

The cost for "Lines of Battle" approached a quarter of a million dollars. His handlers basically chartered their own plane.

Normally, horses share the space, and owners share the cost.

International travel usually ranges from $8,000 to $30,000, depending on the number of horses. Coach class is normally when three horses fly together, and first class is two.

"They have specialized air stalls around these horses," said Haug, who added that the horses—unlike us—don't mind coach. "They take comfort in each other.

"You give them hay and water, and you just let them relax."

To fly domestically, the cost is much cheaper—ranging from $3,000 to $5,000.

You can also FedEx your horse, although the company would not tell CNBC the cost, only saying they charge by the pound.

Regardless of cost, if any of the horses win on Saturday—even "Lines of Battle"—the cost of transportation would have been well worth it.

The prize money alone would dwarf the quarter million, and lifelong stud fees are the best kind of annuity for any horse owner.

So if he comes home the winner, it would all be worth it.

"The return would be so great if they can win this race," Haug said.

—By CNBC's Brian Shactman. Follow him on Twitter: @bshactman