By Bill Finley of ESPN.com
Mark Cramer likes lost causes, and in America’s slaughterhouse-bound, retired racehorses, he has certainly found one. These are the rejects, the horses who are either too slow or too infirm to win a meaningful amount of money on the racetrack or be sent to a cushy life on a breeding farm somewhere. Hardly anyone cares about them and the racing industry does little to protect them, which is why an appallingly high number of retired thoroughbreds are shipped each year to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada to be butchered for their meat.
This is a problem that should be solved by the leaders of the industry and its wealthiest participants, but that doesn’t seem to be happening, so the 65-year-old horseplayer and author decided to do something on his own. Starting July 3, Cramer and friend Alan Kennedy will bike across France from racetrack to racetrack to raise awareness of the horse slaughter problem on a mission he is calling “Riding for Their Lives.” The bike trip is devoted to raising money for the U.S.-based Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and a French horse rescue group.
The TRF finds homes for retired thoroughbreds that might otherwise be sent to slaughter and places many of them at prisons. There they are cared for by inmates, many of whom turn corners in their lives thanks to the recuperative powers of working with and developing a compassion for the animals.
“There are those claimers out there who ran hard for me and I got a big payoff in an exacta or something like that,” Cramer said. “I don’t want to see them die when they are done racing. They live a good life when they are racing, but after that how can we just toss them away? So many of us derive so much enjoyment from this. It’s about our own humanity, not just saving these beautiful animals.”
Cramer was born in the U.S., which is where he discovered horse racing. He has lived abroad for years, moving from Bolivia to Spain and then to France, where he has resided for the last 11 years in a town just outside Paris. He’s still an avid horseplayer and boasts that he has made a nice profit over the last several years wagering blindly on Gina Rarick, believed to be the only American-born trainer in France, and playing the French version of the superfecta. He’s also become quite enamored with bike riding and began to pedal around the country two years ago visiting racetracks. This year, he hatched the idea of expanding his tour to its current format and riding on behalf of a cause.
“One of the reasons we picked the TRF is because you can see a concrete result,” he said. “Not only do they save unwanted horses, they save unwanted human beings because they have farms at prisons where inmates get vocational training and it is great therapy for them. With the horses and the inmates, something very productive is happening.”
He and Kennedy will be on the road for 22 days and will cover about 600 miles. Among the racetracks they will visit are Deauville, Vichy, Clairefontaine, Saint-Cloud, Compiegne, Maisons-Laffitte and Longchamp. At his age, that doesn’t figure to be easy, but he’s counting on the mind-over-matter factor.
“Exercise is usually boring,” Cramer said. “We believe in something called purposeful activity, which is exercise where you’re accomplishing something at the same time. That makes it fun. I don’t look at it as our making a sacrifice to save retired thoroughbreds from the slaughterhouse. We enjoy doing this and since we know there is a purpose, a beautiful purpose, getting up a hill is much easier than if we were going up there just to go up there.”
That a resident of France would be among those coming to the rescue of American racehorses is ironic. Americans don’t eat horsemeat, but the French do. France is one of a handful of countries that import horsemeat from the Canadian and Mexican slaughterhouses that U.S. thoroughbreds are sent to after their careers end. Cramer said that’s not indicative of how most French people feel about animals.
“There are a lot of organizations in France that exist to save horses,” he said. “There’s one we are working with, which is called the League for the Protection of Horses, and we’ll be riding for them, too. I know a lot of French people and none of them I know eat horsemeat. I know it happens. My wife has seen it sold in grocery stores. I don’t think it is pervasive. We’ve had a wonderful reaction in France, from journalists, from people at the tracks. We’ve gotten support from the French Jockey Club on this.”
He advocates the creation of a plan whereby owners, trainers and breeders make mandatory contributions into a central fund that would create the type of capital needed to guarantee a safe and humane retirement for all retired runners. Cramer said the French racing industry is exploring such a system. Until then, he will do what he can, hitting the roads and racetracks of France on his mission to right a wrong.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.