Horse News

Who Will Save the Race Horses?

article by Bill Finely ~ reprinted from ESPN

It’s Time for the Horse Racing Industry to Wake Up!

Ginerous Legacy aka "Harley" racing TB adopted by author R.T. Fitch through Habitat for Horses

When it comes to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the New York Times, reporter Joe Drape and the thorny problem of old race horses going off to be butchered in a slaughterhouse, there has been a lot of finger pointing of late. I’m not sure any of it has been constructive. Today, four days after Drape wrote a story in the New York Times that leveled serious charges against the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and the TRF responded with accusations that Drape is a lousy reporter who badly misrepresented the facts, the industry is no closer to solving a problem that has existed for as long as the sport has.

Every day, horses come off the racetrack that aren’t talented enough to become sires or broodmares. They are too old, too slow or too infirm to keep racing. There are thousands a year that fall into this category. Some find good homes. Some get neglected. A lot get slaughtered. How many? No one is quite sure, but the number is no doubt in the thousands.

For far too long, the horse racing industry’s solution was to do nothing. The issue was rarely if ever raised and few had any idea that a lot of old broken-down racehorses were sent off to the slaughterhouse. It was the sport’s dirtiest little secret, and a lot of people wanted to keep it that way.

That started to change in 1982. A New Jersey-based advertising executive named Monique Koehler, who, at the time, had nothing to do with horse racing, stumbled onto the fact that retired thoroughbreds were often killed after their racing careers and was understandably appalled. She’s the type of person who is a doer and not a complainer, so she put together a small group of like-minded people and started the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which was then the only thoroughbred horse rescue group in the nation.

A year later, the TRF took in its first retiree. The days of sweeping the problem under the rug were beginning to end and some horses that otherwise would have been abused, neglected or slaughtered would spend their retirement years in a safe, comfortable environment.

In the ensuing 28 years, a few things have changed. The TRF grew and dozens of other groups were formed that were smaller versions of the TRF but had the same mission — to save as many horses as possible. Most horse rescue groups are pretty much the same in that they are well-meaning, underfunded and do the little bit they can to solve a terrible problem.

What hasn’t changed is how the industry itself has dealt with the predicament. It has never taken charge. Instead, it has relied on a bunch of small charities without a lot of money at their disposal to solve its own problems, all the while knowing that the groups, well meaning or not, were going to war with peashooters. The best the TRF or any group could do was save a small fraction of the horses being slaughtered each year. Collectively, an industry insider said, “It’s not our problem.”

That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of good people out there in racing. Either with their money, their efforts, or both, the list of people who want to do the right thing includes such names as Marylou Whitney, Penny Chenery, Nick Zito, Earle Mack, Mike Repole, Graham Motion, John and Susan Moore, and Jockey Club president and COO Jim Gagliano.

It is to say that the majority of people in the sport, its leaders and its leading organizations don’t care enough to want to do anything about horse slaughter or the treatment of retirees. To place the burden on a handful of charities and then largely step aside was never a good idea, was never going to work.

I will let you make your own judgments about the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. But there’s no disputing the fact that for nearly 30 years it has saved the lives of thousands of horses. It is by far the biggest thoroughbred horse rescue group out there. Now it has been critically wounded by a torrent of terrible publicity that will cause it severe harm when it comes to donations. The TRF will not survive this.

I am not saying this was anyone’s intention at the New York Times but because of the reports a lot of horses are now going to die that otherwise would have survived. When it comes to slaughter, the problem has suddenly and dramatically gotten worse.

The only chance that something good can come out of this mess is if this turns out to be a watershed moment in horse racing. Solving the problem of what to do with unwanted horses coming off the track is actually very easy. All it takes is money, and probably a lot less money than you think to set up a Social Security-type program for old racehorses. If the racing industry can come together and finally deal with what to do with these horses and come up with adequate funding then, well, problem solved. Put together enough money and no horse will ever be abused, neglected or slaughtered again.

It will take money, but it will more so take a monumental shift in attitude. It should not be the TRF’s problem or the problem of any other charity. It should be the horse racing industry’s problem. Does the sport care? How it deals with the TRF issues and the stories in the New York Times will answer that question.

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12 replies »

  1. It’s the old story of supply and demand. People breed horses for speed, color, endurance, pulling, walking just about every imaginable trait. For every successful horse there are far too many discarded ones. Somehow breeders of horses must be somewhat responsible, maybe a cradle to grave report on every horse they breed that is a public document. Social security sounds great, but sooner or later almost all horses fall on hard times. Thanks to all the great volunteers and supporters that pick up the slack so some can prosper, unfortunately the soap factories still have innovatory because of over breeding and its those poor bastards that pay the ultimate price so some can prosper be it the breeder, auction house, trucker, or killer.


  2. The answer is simple and from there becomes COMPLEX. Every dollar as income on the backs of horse as sales should have a small fraction broken away and funded directly to local (in the county of origination) – Equine Retirement Fund. Maybe a national oversight to control an equainmous distribution should be the only administration costs and that compensation should be strictly controlled with no bonuses and actually should be confirmed and voted on yearly by all receivers of Fund money, with one independent vote. Just a thought. Horses bring in billions – BILLIONS. World wide – who knows? The global attack on horses is unfathomable, but reflects back on every one of us.


  3. It seems that anything is only as good as the people involved–that includes EVERYTHING, from politics to religion. The best that could come of this situation is that Good people–capable, compassionate, solution seeking people will come together and help work this out–and even then–they won’t ever be able to relax their vigil, especially when money is involved. We have found this out with our Wild Horses and Burros. Many of us actually thought that they were all safe. After all, they were declared “Federally Protected” by Congress.


  4. Alex Brown started the Top Bunk page. They keep track of who has earned over 500 thousand dollars and is now running in claimers for less than 5000. This isn’t a total solution, its a start. And Pay Attention was adopted when his “new” owner saw him and fell in love. She let the owner and trainer know that when the time came–she wanted him. It took a few months but Payten has his forever home.

    And Joe at TBFriends couldn’t do what he does without the strong support he gets from his online friends.

    No this won’t save all the horses. It will matter to the ones who are saved.

    I think part of every breeding–should go a cost to retirement for the ensuring offspring. Even the 2500 dollars stud fee should incur some cost of retirement for the offspring.

    All tb’s as part of their being registered should be microchipped. That way when the time comes–all that needs to be done is check the chip and see who has a claim on the horse upon retirement.

    Nick Zito’s wife has been horrified to know that some of her horses who she even wrote on the back of the papers that she wanted to be notified–that some of her horses have ended up on the slaughter pipeline.


  5. Does anyone have the stats on what percentage of all funds received has gone to admistrative costs and salaries? This is my only concern about TRF.


    • Elaine, you can register for a free account on Guidestar and see their Form990’s for the last 3 years. here’s the link for anyone who has not used it before. Quite a bit of money has gone to administrative salaries and expenses. Interesting reading anyway. I gotta say I am really torn on my thoughts on TRF. I wish I really knew what happened. Regardless of how it came about the result is once again the horses are betrayed.


  6. As a non-profit horse rescue and sanctuary in Rhode Island which has been operating at full capacity of 26 for 2 1/2 years (despite some adoptions and nowhere near the scale of the TRF) we always have at least 1/4 – 1/3 of our capacity as OTTBs – several were awaiting transport to Canada- and our present waiting list of 7 includes 4 OTTBs. 2 of our current residents are stakes winners – one amassing over $800,000 and the other almost $300,000 – grants and public donations are down and we have never received any compensation from any track/racing industry group – our best source of funding has been thru public donations brought about by community awareness initiatives we’ve organized with help from the local press – is it enough? – no – until we as humans come to realize that we need to be responsible for the lives of the animals in our care – animals that are living, breathing, feeling – not fur-covered machines and extensions of our egos made solely for the purpose of fattening our wallets – I feel that horses will continue to be continue to be “disposable” – if it doesn’t serve THE purpose, just get rid of it and get something that will run faster, jump higher or spin quicker! But we’ll still be here to pick up the fallen castaways.


  7. “By working together, the New York racing industry has confronted the most important issue ever facing horses in America– their right to not be brutally slaughtered,” said Ferdinand Fee founder Bill Heller. “There is no reason in the world that every other Thoroughbred and Standardbred racetrack, horsemen’s group, and horsemen’s association cannot implement a similar program immediately. Since the fees are voluntary, only those who can afford to make a contribution will do so, Ferdinand won the Kentucky Derby & was sent to slaughter in Japan.

    Read more:

    OK this is from 2005. What ever happened to it.
    I think the fees should be mandatory, not voluntary. And it should be cheap enough that all can afford it. There should be a part of the breeding fee, part of the selling fee and definitely part of a stakes race money. The first two need to be small (under $10.) It wopuld bring in a ton of money and include horses that never make it to the track.
    Racing itself is in a bad place with no outstanding stars to capture public interest.
    I have only owned OTTBs and they are wonderful creatures.


  8. There are many possible solutions, some of which were pointed out here, so I won’t get into that. Suffice it to say that breeders need to be held accountable for the horses they breed.

    I do want to comment on the editorial here, and it’s the first time I think I’ve been a bit bothered by something you’ve written. So that quite surprised me.

    The undertone of the article seemed to slant in favor of TRF and against the reporter, saying (one example) “because of the reports a lot of horses are now going to die that otherwise would have survived”. That kind of bothers me.

    While I’m not entirely knowledgeable about TRF and their practices… I realize they’ve done a lot of good over the years. That being said, there are horses starving out there, that TRF took in. It seems to me it’s similar to someone starting a little backyard rescue and turning into a hoarder. Well-intentioned or not, if the animals are suffering, there is a problem. That goes for TRF as well.

    If they were that hard up for money, maybe the humane thing to do would be to euthanize some of the horses that are costing the most money, instead of starving the rest of them. There’s a common “argument” by the pro-slaughter proponent that “we’d” rather see horses neglected than slaughtered. My response is always “why isn’t humane euthanization an option?” It is my belief that there is nothing wrong with humanely euthanizing a horse – especially if it will never be able to be ridden.

    Now don’t think I’m saying “cull the herd” or something! Or to go out and just euthanize swaths of horses! I’m saying take the worst cases, the ones that are costing the most money, and put them to sleep. Free up funds so you can actually help the rest of them. Starving them is not an option. And it’s certainly not a better solution than euthanasia.


  9. All those involved anywhere along the process of producing a race horse must be held responsible for the welfare of the horses-breeders, owners, racetrack owners, and even those bidding on the races. Yes the horse racing industry needs a major overhaul in its thinking and practices. It needs to be their responisbility to provide a safe, humane haven for all the horses from birth to death. No it is not the responsibility of struggling rescues to clean up the racing industry’s mess. Horse slaughter should NEVER be an option!

    Many excellent, thoughtful ideas posted by many. Hopefully the powers that be, are paying attention.


  10. Interesting timing … I’m currently caring for a 21-yo TB mare who raced and won a moderate amount of cash in her day. Then she produced some nice foals. But now that she’s been determined unbreedable, her owner wants her gone. So, I’m trying to find her a home, contacting rescues, looking at options to help this poor horse live out the rest of her life in comfort. She’s given so much, and it’s so unfair that she’s considered disposable simply because she’s an older horse and she can’t make babies.
    She wants to live. She wants to love and be loved. I can see that in her eyes. But who’s going to take her?


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