THE winning horse in Saturday's Kentucky Derby raced at an average speed of about 37 miles an hour, but many of the horses came to the Churchill Downs track at more than 600 miles per hour - as air freight. For Emery Worldwide, a subsidiary of Consolidated Freightways Inc., carrying race and show horses is a standard part of its animal cargo operation. Emery moves 30 to 40 horses per week - many from Kentucky horse farms - to every part of the world, says Chuck Greene, head of Emery's charter department. An ``airstable'' to take up to three horses across the country costs $7,500, says Chris Alderman of Instone Air Services, which lines up customers for Emery.
Horses are just one example of the exotic items the air cargo industry handles, in addition to the routine shipments of urgent letters, parcels, and other freight.
Last year, Northwest Airlines Inc., carried a number of 35-foot Christmas trees from the United States to Japan. These blue spruce trees were gifts from Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) to the mayor of Minami-nase, Tochigi prefecture in Japan.
``We have carried many unusual items,'' says Lynn Mensch, cargo marketing manager for Northwest. She recalls when snow from Mt. Fuji in Japan was transported to the US to be used in a special Japanese ceremony.
Emery carried a 2,020-pound boulder, which came from near the top of Alaska's Mt. McKinley, from Seattle to Boston's Museum of Science last October as part of an exhibit on ``Interesting Rocks from Interesting Places.''
``The boulder was too big to fit inside a cargo container: it had to be strapped to a pallet,'' says Randy Sinker, Emery's Boston division manager.
Several air freight companies ship antique cars, but Northwest has also handled brand new ones. Last year, the company flew a small number of Honda Civics, assembled at Honda's Ohio plant, from Chicago to Tokyo due to a temporary car shortage in Japan. These days, Honda ships ``secret cars'' - 1993 models - back to Japan, Ms. Mensch says.
But animals are the topic that shippers tell the most interesting tales about.
When Siegfried & Roy, an entertainment group based in Las Vegas, Nev., took its animals and stage equipment to Japan during the company's 1989 world tour, it took four 747s and two air-cargo planes to carry it all, says manager Bernie Yuman.
The company has 28 rare white tigers, many horses, and an elephant.
Setting a cabin temperature between 60 and 65 degrees and maintaining dim lighting are very important. ``We don't want animals to be too warm or too cold.'' says Martin Dinnes, Siegfried's veterinarian.
To keep animals comfortable, cages are positioned so they face in the direction the airplane is moving, Mr. Dinnes adds.
``Each animal is unique and you have to tailor their needs,'' says Mr. Greene of Emery. This is the most difficult part of animal cargo operation, he says. For example, deer have a high body temperature. For this reason, it is essential to provide good air conditioning for them during a flight. Gorillas like warm temperature, so the cabin should be around 70 degrees.
In February, Emery carried six Western lowland gorillas from zoos in Philadelphia and Cincinnati to the San Diego Zoo. A chartered Boeing 727 freighter transported the gorillas, weighing a total of 1,000 pounds, and nine flight attendants. The total cost was tens of thousands of dollars, Greene says.
Starting from Philadelphia, the plane picked up three adult gorillas: Alvila, Memba, and Jessica. In Cincinnati, the plane added three younger passengers: 4-year-old Kimba Kumba, 2-year-old Penny II, and Kubatiza, 1-1/2. A 3-by-4 foot metal cage was specially made for each of the adult gorillas and smaller cages were used for baby gorillas.
The gorillas were even offered snacks (raisins and bananas) on the flight, says John Anderson, one of the nine human attendants on the plane and president of Air Charter Services International of Burlingame, Calif.
Even though air cargo handles expensive animals such as race horses, its operation is not limited to first-class passengers. In January this year, with the help from the Michigan Humane Society, Northwest took three baby cougars from Detroit to Los Angeles at no charge. The cougars were received by Wildlife Waystation, a nonprofit rescue facility for wild animals.