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Equine stars take to skies to reach Longines Masters show jumping in L.A.

They ship horses, don't they?

But rarely at this magnitude, aboard a jumbo charter containing 44 of Europe's most magnificent creatures, a bodacious breed known as warmbloods — bigger than thoroughbreds and able to leap the moon.

The jet carrying the Olympic-caliber show jumpers touched down Saturday at Los Angeles International Airport, just like any other international flight.

Yet it was anything but. In the rosy predawn glow, an entourage of 100 stood by — vets, grooms, drivers, cargo specialists, agriculture wonks, immigration agents.

First off was a bin carrying the arrivals' passports (yes, horses have passports), then came the giant metal crates containing the European entries for this weekend's Longines Masters at the L.A. Convention Center, one of the blingy sport's biggest events.

Talk about VIP arrivals. Many of these show horses are worth more than your house — maybe your cul-de-sac. One superstar sold for $10 million, a sticker price based on performance more than bloodlines.

Even beyond that, the investment is enormous. The competition courses are so technical — loaded with five-foot-tall jumps — that the show horses take years to train, peaking between ages 9 and 16. Then there are charter flights like this, costing north of $1 million.

Think of it as a rodeo for the ultra-rich. Compared to this, the Super Bowl resembles a yard sale.

Top participants include Jessica "Born to Ride" Springsteen, and Georgina Bloomberg, daughter of the billionaire former New York mayor. At lower levels of competition, you see names such as Spielberg and Gates.

The General Patton behind this colossal airlift — or the Custer, if things turn extra lousy — is Filip Vande Cappelle, who somehow keeps his head from spinning when gate security turns ornery, or when customs shows up an hour late.

This is nothing, he says, compared to the airport hassles in Hong Kong, another stop in the three-city Masters trilogy (Paris is the third). On site since 3 a.m., Vande Cappelle carefully cornrows six horse trailers into place, just inches apart, for easy loading.

Twelve hours earlier, in Belgium, the horses were packed up, three to each portable metal stall, then placed on pallets and forklifted aboard, so that their hooves never touched the tarmac.

After a flight over the north pole, the containers are forklifted off at LAX, where each horse is led aboard semi-trailer horse trucks for the 25-minute ride to the convention center.

Simple? As the Battle of the Bulge.

First, there is the critical step of freeing the horses from their metal stalls and getting them aboard the trucks — not a job for the meek or weak. A cargo supervisor grimaces when he recalls the time an ostrich — "or was it an emu?" — escaped during an exotic animal transfer here.

Sweaty before sunup, Jimmy Duggan leads the crew that transfers the horses out of their crates and onto the trucks, amid fuel smells, jet noises and the occasional whinny.

"They're just talking to each other," explains equine vet Richard Markell.

There was no sedation for the horses during the flight, organizers say, only hay and water through small openings in each unit, served by seven grooms on the plane. A vet and an equine flight attendant were also on board, where the stallions were kept to the front of the plane, because they require more attention, and separate from the mares (no mile-high conquests allowed).

Seasoned travelers, horses like this don't get jet-lagged, they get even. Left on the floor of the jumbo 777 is a skim of their juices from the 5,700-mile flight, and a special company is soon busy vacuuming up the corrosive urine before it seeps into the plane to eat away at its metal bones.

Meanwhile, Duggan and his crew work without pause, clanking the heavy latches — unhooking this, releasing that — then handing the horses off to grooms to lead onto the trucks.

Three hours later, this pony express is completed, ahead of schedule and with zero mishaps or escapes. Up the 110 Freeway to the convention center the trailers go, to temporary stables in the South Hall.

Starting Thursday, the horses begin competing over a sandy course in six timed events in the elite five-star competition, racing the clock in hopes of collecting some of the $1 million in prize money.

Many of this weekend's participants will also compete in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics next summer. Selection varies, but most nations look to the points accumulated in international competitions like these to choose their riders.

"As a spectator, you can feel and smell the horses," Anouk Blain-Mailhot of the Masters explains of the event, which features $25,000 VIP tables and 2,444 bottles of Champagne.

Ounce for ounce, karat for carrot, is any sport more bejeweled than this?

That'd be a big neigh.

Follow Chris Erskine on Twitter @erskinetimes

The Longines Masters takes place Thursday through Sunday. Tickets run $39 to $129. Info: www.mastersgrandslam.com

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