When I saw the headline in the New York Times last Thursday night – “Ex-Racehorses Starve as Charity Fails in Mission to Care for Them” – I was, unsurprisingly, dismayed. I clicked on the link, expecting to read another story about a well-meaning, small, grassroots-type rescue that had been beset by financial difficulties, or corruption, or some nefarious combination of the two that had resulted in horses’ suffering.
Imagine my shock when the charity to which the headline referred was the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.
The TRF is the organization that, a decade ago, made me aware of the need to take care of horses when they were done racing. They are the equine welfare charity to which I first donated, at Saratoga Race Course one summer day, when in exchange for my donation I received a sleeveless TRF t-shirt, which remains one of my favorites to this day.
More recently, I have written about the TRF, publicizing its news and its donation initiatives. I’ve interviewed Diana Pikulski, executive director of external affairs for the TRF, for several articles, one of which is published in Thoroughbred Times today. I’ve consulted with her about horses that need homes. Last summer, we went for a run together in Saratoga as I prepared to race for the TRF’s fund-raising 5K at the end of the meet. (Never made the race, unfortunately; an interview with a trainer ended up having to take precedence.)
So I read, confounded, distressed, the allegations in the Times, and I hoped – and continue to hope – naively, idealistically, that perhaps there’s more – or less – to the story than was reported. I am in no position to comment on the veracity of the allegations. I can only hope that things aren’t as bad with the TRF as they seem to be.
I can ask once again, along with so many others, about what we’re going to do with retired racehorses. I can ask who’s going to take care of them, where they’re going to go, who’s going to pay for their care. I can be grateful for the many organizations and individuals who contribute time and money to making sure that the horses that can’t race any more have a safe place to go.
I can be naïve and idealistic, believing that a seismic shift in philosophy can, should, and will take place in the industry, that the people who decide to own a horse will look at that responsibility as one that lasts a lifetime, not a few months or a few years. When someone puts in a claim or signs an auction receipt or decides to breed his mare, I can hope that he’s looking 25 and 30 years down the line, prepared to take care of that animal for its lifetime.
I know that that’s not the way it works, that owners don’t invest in a horse thinking of it as a lifetime commitment. But naively, idealistically, I think that they should. Horses are not pets; I get that. But when you decide to own another living thing, whether for profit or pleasure, it becomes your responsibility. It’s up to you to figure out how to make sure that it lives a safe, healthy life.
It’s not this easy, I know. I know that owners’ circumstances change, that good intentions can founder in the face of economic hardship. I know that there have to be organizations and individuals there to help the horses that can’t be helped any other way.
I do not absolve the TRF of its responsibility to take care of horses to which it made a commitment. But if the people that had owned those horses to begin with had fulfilled their responsibilities, we wouldn’t be in this position. Their names aren’t the ones in the paper. They are not the ones who have to answer questions about their obligations. They get to disappear, foisting off their responsibilities onto organizations like the TRF, while their horses depend on the good people who donate and the good people who work there, without having to answer to anybody.
Click here for my Thoroughbred Times article on the Jockey Club check-off program for Thoroughbred retirement.