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Central Kentucky airports prepare for busy Breeders' Cup week of travelers — human and equine

Special signs and photos have been put up for passengers  arriving at Blue Grass Airport for the weekend's activities.
Special signs and photos have been put up for passengers arriving at Blue Grass Airport for the weekend's activities. Herald-Leader

The four-day period starting Thursday will be a busy — but festive — time to fly into the Bluegrass.

Guests arriving for the Breeders' Cup Classic or the University of Kentucky-University of Tennessee football game, both being held that weekend, will be greeted at Blue Grass Airport with an oversize floral horseshoe at the entrance. The front of the terminal will be lighted in purple. Passengers will receive bourbon balls courtesy of Maker's Mark, and Call to the Post will be played at baggage claim.

And a bluegrass band will play on several days.

If you're coming in by private aircraft — and many people will be — you'll be stepping off onto a purple Breeders' Cup carpet.

Commercial flights — Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines serve Blue Grass Airport — are bumping up capacity for the Breeders' Cup, according to airport spokeswoman Amy Caudill. For example, 50-seat regional jets will be upgraded to 150- or 180-seat planes, such as a Boeing 757, a midsize twin engine jet, or Airbus A320, which Caudill said probably will be 90 percent to 100 percent full.

Additional airport workers are being brought in — from security screening agents to restaurant staff — to help with the expected rush. Airport terminal staff will wear purple, a Breeders' Cup color, and the flower beds outside will be adorned in purple and gold, also Breeders' Cup colors. A temporary food court in the terminal will be filled with Alltech bourbon-barrel tables.

Air traffic appears to be busiest on the Thursday before the Breeders' Cup — which will be Friday and Saturday — and is expected to pick up again Sunday, as visitors leave town.

The airport is expected to see a level of traffic it hasn't seen since the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington in 2010, an event that was spread out over two weeks. In a 2011 report commissioned by the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, the Alltech World Equestrian Games Foundation reported that it sold or provided complimentary tickets to 419,853 visitors. They came from 63 countries and all 50 states.

Breeders' Cup officials are expecting about 40,000 people to attend this weekend's races.

Airports in Georgetown, Frankfort and Richmond will be backups for private air traffic, Caudill said.

Dave Gauss, manager of the Frankfort airport, said he expects traffic there to be smaller aircraft, although his airport can handle business and private jets as big as a Bombardier Global Express or a Gulfstream IV or V, he said.

"If Lexington maxes out, we'll take the overflow," Gauss said.

Jason Bonham, manager of the Richmond airport, said that he had received a few calls from pilots seeking a landing berth for Saturday night's Kentucky-Tennessee football game. The airport also can handle private jets because of a runway expansion four years ago, Bonham said.

It also will provide a place to park the aircraft and help with rental cars.

Lexington's airport will close its crosswind, or shorter, runway for aircraft parking, Caudill said.

Although Blue Grass Airport will try to process passengers as quickly as possible, Caudill suggested that departing passengers try to arrive two hours before departure times.

The airport is not just gearing up for commercial and private passengers. Horses also will be flying in via the H.E. "Tex" Sutton air transportation company.

Operations manager Mike Payne said that because the Breeders' Cup is being held in Kentucky this year, fewer horses will fly in than during Breeders' Cups elsewhere because many of the horses are nearby already.

The passengers aboard "Air Horse One," Payne said, "are like people. They have personalities. They're all a little different."

Some are more skittish, requiring more space and attention. Others are born jet-setters.

On the Sutton Facebook feed, for example, browsers can see several clips of American Pharoah getting off and onto an aircraft, looking as if he's having a wonderful time.

"He's just a big ham," Payne said.

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