The Thoroughbred Racing Industry Is Trying to Take Care of its Own

Once upon a time, horse racing was the Number One spectator sport in the U.S., and the top race horses were in the news as much as today’s top NFL or NBA stars. Now, although some of the major classics such as the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont along with the Breeders Cup races, attract large numbers of spectators and even some network TV coverage, the number of horses that actually race has been in decline for the past decade. Fewer mares are bred, the foal crop each year has declined, and those horses that do race, run in fewer races annually. Unheard of even a decade ago, many races, especially at the smaller tracks, have only 5 or 6 starters compared to the usual size of 10 or 12 starters. And even with fewer horses racing, a large number of these will never even earn their keep or will sustain career-ending injuries that can be rehabilitated to allow it to continue being ridden in a less demanding discipline. A few may go on to be breeding animals, but even that market has shrunk, and there’s not much market for the offspring of an animal that was a dud on the track.

Here in Virginia’s horse country, there has always been a market for a sound, healthy Thoroughbred that couldn’t earn its keep at the track. Many trainers and riders happily bought them or $1,000 or less and retrained them to be show horses, steeplechasers, fox hunters or just regular trail horses. Like the pinhookers that buy Thoroughbred weanlings and yearlings bred for the track and break them, train them and get them ready to race to be sold at a tidy profit at auction, pinhookers existed in the pleasure horse world, too. Trainers and riders would buy up inexpensive track duds that were either slow or had minor injuries, and rehabilitate and reschool them for new careers.

These Thoroughbreds, who were usually well saddle-broke and used to being handled, just needed to learn about the world outside of the manicured track and their 12 x 12-foot stalls, to live outside in pastures with other horses, to navigate trails and obstacles, to be exposed to things they’d never seen, and most important, be taught not to lean into the bit and take off at a gallop.  Most showed an aptitude for the job and were easily converted to become show, dressage and event horses, or foxhunters, trail or pleasure horses. They were then easily worth three or four times the initial purchase price, sometimes many times more.  Even the influx of them after tax laws on depreciation changed for race horse owners in the early 2000s were absorbed. What finally created a surplus the cottage industry of retraining ex-race horses could not absorb, was the tanking of the economy along with the ban on horse slaughter in the U.S. eight years ago.

As the economy slumped, the bottom fell out of the show, pleasure and riding horse market as people who could no longer afford them were desperate to unload their horses. By 2007, the last three slaughterhouses that processed horses in the U.S. closed their doors. Without that outlet, an already depressed horse market plummeted even more. Coinciding with the recession and massive job loss was a steep increase in cases of abandoned, starving and neglected horses.  Many who otherwise would’ve sold horses they couldn’t afford, found no market for them and could no longer feed, care for or even dispose of them.  Adding more woes, feed costs skyrocketed, taxing both owners and rescue organizations that historically cared for unwanted horses. Many rescue groups became overwhelmed; and there simply aren’t enough of them to keep pace with the burgeoning surplus of unwanted horses.

 Horses generally live twice as long as dogs or cats; most live to 25 or 30 years, some as long as 40 years. And euthanizing a horse is not cheap—it can cost upwards of $1,000. Someone who cannot afford to feed a horse or pay the vet bills on a gravely ill one, likely cannot even afford to have it humanely put down. A vet visit for lethal injection costs several hundred dollars and rendering plants, if you can find them, charge similar fees to pick them up. Landfills won’t take them. Hiring a backhoe to dig a large enough hole costs $400-600.  And that’s if you own the land and are even allowed to bury a horse on it. Carcasses that contain drugs and chemicals for treatment of illness and/or lethal injection can contaminate groundwater, and many locales forbid their burial at all.

Although horsemeat was never considered table fare in this country, horses, including race horses, were routinely slaughtered for export abroad and for the pet food industry. Congress never banned slaughter outright, but mandated USDA inspections of facilities that slaughtered them for food in 1996. Ten years later, funding for the inspections was withdrawn. Without inspections, the meat couldn’t be sold, so the industry died, to the cheers of the animal rights lobby that thought they were helping  horses by ending what they viewed as a barbaric practice. In truth, over 100,000 U.S. horses annually were still slaughtered for food, but they now had to be trucked out of the country, enduring grueling trips and a final end out of the reach of U.S. laws for humane death. Even radical animal rights lobbies such as the Humane Society of the U.S. that were in favor of the ban, agreed that its consequences created a monster.

Enter the Thoroughbred Charities of America, an arm of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. TOBA is the racing industry’s voice for improving the integrity, economics and pleasure of the Thoroughbred racing industry, including taking care of retired and unwanted racers. TCA is the charitable arm of TOBA. TCA’s mission is to provide a better life for Thoroughbreds both during and after their racing careers by supporting rescue, retirement and research and by helping the people who work with them. TCA grants funds to organizations in four categories including: Thoroughbred rescue, retirement, retraining and rehoming; research; backstretch and farm employee programs; and therapeutic riding programs. With the support of the Thoroughbred industry, TCA has distributed over $20 million in grants to more than 200 Thoroughbred-related non-profit organizations. TCA is a 501(c) (3) organization, governed by a Board of Directors.

One such non-profit that many locals in the Blue Ridge have adopted from is CANTER, formally known as the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racers. Founded in 1997 to help retiring racehorses find new homes, CANTER’s services have become a welcome resource on the track for retiring or injured horses that can no longer race. CANTER operates 13 affiliates throughout the country; each organized as its own entity. Each affiliate operates as what is referred to as Phase I or Phase II. Phase I CANTER affiliates operate exclusively as a listing service offering free online postings of Thoroughbreds available for adoption directly from the racetrack(s) within the affiliate’s coverage area. Phase I CANTER does not take possession of the listed horses but instead acts as a conduit to connect buyers and sellers. Phase II CANTER affiliates actually take possession and keep or board horses that need rehabilitation or retraining with the help of grants from TCA.

Over the last 17 years, approximately 2,800 Thoroughbreds have been rehomed directly from CANTER affiliates.  Phase II affiliates are located in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, the Mid-Atlantic area, Minnesota, New England and Ohio. TCA’s grants directly assist with the rehabilitation, retraining and rehoming efforts of the Thoroughbreds in the care of CANTER.  Most affiliates have waiting lists and with more funding can take in more Thoroughbreds. For more information on TCA please visit www.TCA.org. Donations are tax deductible.

Written by: Julie Reardon

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