There’s an Elephant In the Room, and He’s Wearing Racing Plates
Thoroughbred racing seems to always be defending itself against something.
Maybe that just comes with the territory of being an industry that mass produces animals for sport, and then discards them once they are no longer useful (substitute a dollar sign for the “s” in “useful”).
Last week came news that the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the largest private group in the U.S. dedicated to providing for former racehorses, had been so derelict in paying for the care of its more than 1,000 horses that many were found starving and neglected.
According to a front page article in The New York Times, the foundation had been operating at a deficit for the past two years, and was far behind on payments to the 25 farms it contracts with to care for the horses.
The article cited one farm in Oklahoma with 47 TRF horses (“Many of those were starving”) and another in Kentucky with 34 TRF retirees deemed to be in “poor” or “emaciated” condition” (one suffering from malnutrition so severe it had to be euthanized).
It doesn’t take financial acuity on par with Warren Buffett’s to see what went wrong at the TRF. Between 2001 and 2007, the number of TRF retirees ballooned from 300 to 1,200 (in the fall of 2004 alone, TRF took in 168 new horses).
Then came the 2008 financial crisis, brought on by the bursting housing bubble. Suddenly, the plight of aging, retired racehorses became less urgent to potential donors, many of whom were dealing with their own money problems.
It’s too soon to say what will become of the TRF, which (until The Times story broke) had been regarded as the Red Cross of thoroughbred charities.
Despite its inability to provide for its horses, it had no problem meeting administrative payroll, though its longtime director, Diana Pikulski, voluntarily reduced her salary from $95,000 to $85,000 in 2010, according to tax filings listed at Guidestar.org, a database that tracks the financial records of nonprofit groups. As of last month, Pikulski was no longer a salaried employee of the TRF but remained with the group as an independent fundraiser (for which she receives $72,000 annually).
“We have dug ourselves a big hole financially, and we’re still behind,” the TRF’s president, George Grayson, told The Times. “It’s been a struggle to keep up with the costs associated with a large and aging horse population, at a time when the economy and giving is down.”
The most pressing concern, of course, is this: What will become of the TRF retirees if the group loses so much funding because of the negative publicity that it can no longer care for them?
I don’t envision 1,000 potential adopters lined up with their trailers outside the TRF farms. Nor can I imagine any other thoroughbred retirement farms throwing open the gates and welcoming in more horses. Because they can’t.
The ‘E’ Word
The calls come every day, says Michael Blowen, the former Boston Globe film critic who quit his day job to found Old Friends Equine in 2000.
The retirement farm, located in Georgetown, Ky., caters to old stallions who have lived beyond their fertile years but also accepts geldings and mares. Like TRF, Old Friends has seen donations drop off in recent years.
“It’s absolutely gut-wrenching to turn these people down,” Blowen says of the calls from owners wanting to retire their horses to Old Friends. “I have to turn down five or six people on a daily basis.
“The psychological burden of having to turn away people who are just trying to do the right thing by the horse — people with cancer, people who’ve lost their jobs — it’s just awful.”
There are no concrete figures on the number of horses retiring from racing each year. Equine advocacy groups offer estimates from 4,500 to 8,000, with a very small percentage of those becoming broodmares or stallions.
Maybe 10 percent — and that’s a very generous estimate — are sound enough to transition into second careers as hunters, jumpers, eventers or trail horses. What happens to the remaining, unwanted thousands?
The answer is something many in racing are unwilling to discuss publicly.
“Racing is bothered by the imagery of dead horses,” says Allie Conrad, executive director of the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses (CANTER) Mid-Atlantic. “They don’t want to admit their sport kills animals. They don’t even say ‘euthanasia’ — they say ‘the ‘E’ word.’”
Conrad, who runs a CANTER chapter from her farm in Raeford, has placed hundreds of off-the-track thoroughbreds into new homes. Anthony Patch, competing at the Carolina Horse Park with Laine Ashker this weekend in the advanced division of the Southern Pines Horse Trials II, is a CANTER graduate.
Conrad says she has been criticized by some in thoroughbred aftercare for primarily taking in horses that can be rehabilitated and retrained into second careers.
“We used to take the broken-down ones,” she says flatly. “But we were spending all our money killing them. We can spend the money doing extensive rehabbing to try saving three badly injured horses that should be humanely put down, or we can spend the money retraining 30 sound ones.”
Advocating For A Dignified End
For those thousands coming off the track with injuries or temperaments that make them virtually unadoptable, maybe the kindest option is the one thoroughbred racing is afraid to say out loud, says Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States, an animal advocacy group that is not opposed to horse racing.
“For some racehorses that have suffered injuries they can’t recover from, or can’t be maintained comfortably, then humane euthanasia may be the best thing,” Dane said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to just dispose of a horse if the owner has simply wrung the last bit of profit from it.”
The idea of euthanizing a perfectly sound horse simply because no one is willing to care for it is heart-wrenching for many to consider … myself included.
But I don’t think anyone really believes that, simply because the last remaining horse-processing slaughterhouse in the U.S. closed in 2007, no racehorses are being sent to slaughter.
They are, they’re just enduring a longer, more torturous ride to Canada (home to seven federally-licensed slaughterhouses) or Mexico, which has two official horse-processing slaughterhouses but many municipal facilities with no regulation how horses are handled or killed.
Conrad says she has talked with people at Charles Town Racetrack in West Virginia about a low-cost euthanasia program sponsored or supported by the track.
Such a program has been in existence for years in Puerto Rico, at the Hipodromo Camerero in Canovanas, where approximately 400-500 injured or unwanted horses are euthanized each year at a clinic on the racetrack grounds.
No Easy Answers
Helen Meredith, the president and founder of United Pegasus Foundation in Tehachapi, Calif., was appalled to hear about the neglected TRF horses.
But she understands how it might have happened. Since December, Meredith said the price of hay has gone from $7.50 to $11.95 a bale. “Our credits cards are maxed out at $80,000,” she said.
Her horses, many in their early 20s, are thriving. They have round bellies, and their coats are shiny. I fully expect most of these horses to be around for several more years. But will the money be there to care for them?
With workman’s compensation, payroll, veterinary and farrier costs, maintenance on farm equipment, and the ever-escalating price of diesel, the cost of caring for a UPF horse runs upwards of $420 per month.
Blowen is working with U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) on a kind of “Social Security” for thoroughbreds, though exactly where the funding would come from is unclear.
“We can’t even figure that (stuff) out for people,” Conrad said.
(Note: She didn’t say “stuff.”)
Contact Stephanie Diaz at MediaPlan88@aol.com.
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