The US racing industry has stepped up its game significantly when it comes to re-homing its retired equine athletes in recent years, but there’s still plenty of work to be done
Dina Alborano rescues ex-racehorses bound for slaughter. A savvy social media operator, the New Jersey resident drums up donations through platforms like Facebook and Twitter, then purchases and plucks horses from ‘feed lots’ – facilities, also known as ‘kill lots’, where horses are penned before going to slaughter in Mexico or Canada. Through her horse rescue organization, she then endeavors to find these horses new homes.
Alborano’s efforts have recently received support from some of the most respected jockeys, trainers, owners and journalists in the industry. Some say that she has broadened awareness of this issue like few have been able. But her efforts have also courted controversy.
Critics argue Alborano exaggerates the plight of some of the horses she rescues, needlessly exploiting the highly emotional nature of the topic. Indeed, last month, horse racing outlet the Paulick Report published a story that raised questions about how Alborano manages and conducts her organization, allegations she vigorously denies.
But Alborano’s story touches upon much broader questions about the sport’s relationship with horse slaughter: namely, why are racehorses bound for the abattoir when the drugs they’re given during their racing careers prohibits them from entering the food chain? Who is policing the system? And are there enough homes for the thousands of horses retired from racing each year?
In recent years, the industry as a whole has stepped up its game significantly when it comes to re-homing its retired equine athletes. Driven by ethical concerns as well as a growing realization that potential new fans are turned away by a sport that permits its competitors to end up on foreign dinner plates, the industry is funneling more and more human and financial resources towards what is coined racehorse “aftercare” – the retraining and rehoming of retired racehorses.
“We’ve known the issue of horses ending up in bad spots as long as there’s been racing, but now with social media, it’s put out there in people’s faces on a daily basis,” said Victoria Keith, president of the National Thoroughbred Welfare Organization, a newly established aftercare body. “Everybody’s finding out it’s happening.”
Only, while change has been relatively swift, untold numbers of racehorses are still slipping through the net.
“Is it enough? No,” admitted John Phillips, president of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, an aftercare accreditation organization – the largest such program in the country – which this week held its annual pre-Preakness Stakes fundraiser, the race set for Saturday. “We have a lot more to do.”
‘It’s absolutely ridiculous’
Last year, more than 88,000 horses left the US for slaughter in Canada and Mexico, according to figures compiled by the Equine Welfare Alliance. But how many of those were ex-racehorses? With no hard data, that’s hard to answer. A much-used estimate is 10,000 ex-racehorses. According to the Equine Welfare Alliance, data from 2006 suggests that as many as 17% of horses that go to slaughter each year are ex-racehorses (close to 19,000 at that time). But it should be noted that this was before the racing industry had started to grapple seriously with the problem.
Nevertheless, as Alex Brown, a former racetrack employee and now an author and prominent anti-slaughter advocate, points out, many of these horses shouldn’t be headed to slaughter at all.
“It’s a food safety issue,” said Brown. Drugs like the painkiller phenylbutazone are ubiquitous in racehorse training, but they’re prohibited for use in animals intended for human consumption. “Livestock like cows and chickens, those animals are highly regulated in terms of their drug intake if they’re going into the human food chain. But the horse seems to slip through the cracks,” he said.
So, why do racehorses “slip through the cracks” as Brown says? “It’s almost a running joke at the auctions: ‘Will somebody sign this paper or that paper?’” Brown said, explaining the holes in the documentation system for horses bound for slaughter in Canada. This is compounded by the lack of a comprehensive national “passport” system that charts each horse’s medical history, he said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Racetracks themselves are at the vanguard of policing the system. That’s because the vast majority of racehorses are stabled and trained at these facilities. When trainers seek stalls for their horses, they sign agreements with the track that often requires them to ensure that any horse stabled there doesn’t end up going to slaughter, at least not directly.
But the devil, they say, is in the details. These agreements can differ in rigor of wording, and certain racetracks are much more vigilant about enforcing the rules than others. “The more reputable racetracks don’t want to risk their reputation, and they’ve pushed their killers off the shed row,” said Equine Welfare Alliance president, John Holland. “The less reputable tracks, he’s still there. Horses still leak out to slaughter.”
That said, a variety of obstacles make enforcement of these policies difficult.