Every Saturday, Jennifer Montfort goes to the track. She gets there early, heading to the backstretch and making her rounds, checking in with her “regulars”: the trainers that she sees every week, with whom she works to place horses whose life on the track is nearing its end.
Jennifer is a CANTER NE (Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses of New England) board member who, along with other CANTER volunteers, heads to Suffolk Downs every racing weekend to work with trainers who have horses to sell. As its name suggests, CANTER creates relationships between buyers and sellers. If a trainer has a horse whose time to leave the track has come, CANTER will visit the horse and get as much information as possible from the trainer. That information, along with a photo of the horse, is posted on CANTER’s website; interested buyers then contact the trainer directly.
CANTER is staffed fully by volunteers and makes no money from the sale of the horses; its volunteers may be the only brokers who don’t work for commission. As Ellen O’Brien, CANTER NE’s executive director puts it, “We have no stake in the transaction except to make sure that best possible match is made, and that the best possible spot is found for the horse.”
CANTER was founded in 1997 in Michigan, by Jo Anne Normile. Normile, a Michigan resident, owned race horses and her daughters were event riders. According to O’Brien, one morning when Normile was at the track, a trainer mentioned to her that he had a horse who wasn’t making it. He offered her the horse, and she found a home for it.
The next time Normile was at the track, three people approached her about horses needing a new home. And thus, CANTER was born. As O’Brien says, “There are great horses on the backside, with loads of talent and potential as show horses. But the backstretch isn’t public, and people need a license to get back there. Nobody would end up there accidentally looking for a horse.
“There are so many tracks with all of these horses begging for opportunities, and there was no connection between racetracks and the larger horse community who would want horses to show, to breed, to keep as pets. Jo Anne created CANTER to make that connection.”
Early in 2002, O’Brien was shopping for a horse. Having grown up a racing fan—“Watching Secretariat win the Belmont on TV put a brand on my psyche,” she says—she knew that she wanted a Thoroughbred. “I admire their courage, their gregariousness, their intelligence, their desire. I don’t see that in other breeds.”
So she went to the racetrack looking for a horse. And she got nothing: no responses from the two tracks closest to her home, Rockingham Park and Suffolk Downs. Some research led her to CANTER, and in 2002, she started its New England branch.
Montfort, another rider, has been involved with CANTER NE for three years. Growing up, she rode horses five minutes from Atlantic City Race Course. “All of my horse show friends had fathers who were trainers, and all of my horses have been ex-racehorses.”
While both O’Brien and Montfort acknowledge that to some degree, Thoroughbreds have fallen out of favor as show horses, O’Brien points out that their intelligence equips them for a variety of show careers following a retirement from the track, and that Thoroughbreds are particularly well-suited to eventing, where the horse is required to gallop.
CANTER NE works throughout the Suffolk Downs meet to find homes for horses on their way off the track, but the end of the meet brings a particular urgency. With two weeks of racing left, trainers and horses are beginning to ship out, most to Florida, but some to Aqueduct. Horses competitive at Suffolk will likely face tougher fields elsewhere, and with shipping costs high, trainers begin to cull their stables, rather than ship horses unlikely to win at the winter tracks.
So in response to the increased need for homes, CANTER NE in 2006 held its first Showcase at Suffolk Downs. This Sunday, the fourth Showcase will be held on Suffolk’s backside. Sunday is dark at Suffolk, and CANTER NE takes over the receiving barn for the day, setting up a kind of walking ring. “Our job is to get as many people there as possible,” says Montfort. “It’s a great time to buy; you can get a quality horse for $1,000.” Both she and O’Brien are quick to emphasize that the Showcase is not an auction; potential buyers are not bidding against each other. If buyers see a horse they’re interested in, they work with trainers directly to make the purchase.
Suffolk Downs garnered national attention when it announced its zero-tolerance policy on horses going to slaughter from its backstretch. All Suffolk trainers have to get a notarized bill of sale for any purchase, and purchasers are contractually bound not to send a horse to auction after the purchase. The bills of sale are notarized by the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
Most Showcase purchasers come from the New England eventing world. Interested parties wanting to learn more about the possibilities of owning an ex-racehorse and those actively looking for horses are encouraged to attend; CANTER NE representatives will be on hand to run the event and answer questions about horse ownership.
“The Showcase takes the pressure off,” says O’Brien. “You’re not in a one-on-one conversation with the trainer; it’s a non-threatening way for people to get introduced to owning a Thoroughbred. Maybe they’ll come this time, learn about it, and take the step towards purchasing next time.”
Last year, CANTER NE facilitated the sale of about 80 horses in the last two weeks of the meet; Montfort anticipates that about 70 horses will be for sale this weekend. Asked about their goal for the event, she says, “We’re successful any time we find a horse a home,” though she admits that the ultimate goal is to have all horses sold and placed at end of meet.
The event will take place this Sunday, October 25, from 9 am until noon in the stable area at Suffolk Downs. For more information, please visit the CANTER NE website; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact Jennifer Montfort at 617-208-8906.
“We want to find people committed to the horses,” says O’Brien. “We work to demystify the process, to help purchasers make good choices, and to match the owner and horse. It’s important for both to be happy.
While CANTER NE works with both purchasers and trainers so that both parties benefit from the transaction, O’Brien makes one thing clear: “We’re not on the trainer’s side. We’re not on buyer’s side. We’re on the horse’s side.”
Photo credits to Jennifer Montfort