Reflecting on Thoroughbred retirement

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.

17 thoughts on “Reflecting on Thoroughbred retirement

  1. That seems a fair question – what of the owners? I also asked myself: what about the breeders? After all, they are ultimately the responsible party for the creation of “the product”. And breeders see the residuals of purses when everything goes well, ie there has been an effort by the industry to earmark funds for the benefit of the breeder but not the dust-to-dust responsibility of “the product” the breeder has created (as in other industries – think haz-mat or recyclables. In the lead-acid battery industry I once worked in, the manufacturer has a responsibility to oversee the product life cycle from “dust-to-dust” extending all the way to taking care of disposal for the end user).

    Tyler Cowen had a brief blog post on this subject titled “The sad saga of zero marginal product workers” and the comments were particularly enlightening – it was pointed out that the horses are more like slaves than workers. Possible solutions to the problem included horse slaughter or killing the entire industry off all together.

    Seems a tiny problem to solve *NOW* in light of the possible ramifications of *NOT* solving it. At $3 per diem for a multi-billion dollar industry, the big industry stake holders should be embarrassed. The industry better not wait too long, as the greyhound industry did, before they are on the wrong side of public opinion. Based on some conversations I had over the weekend with friends and family who had read Mr. Drape’s article, horse racing is already on the wrong side.

  2. I know this particular issue is a such an important and sensitive one, no doubt about it. As a thought, we know there is horse insurance available but, could it be expanded to include the possible care and maintenance of retired horses? I know, I know, it could get really expensive for owners. One other idea, could be to reduce the track takeout monies a small percentage, with the money going into a national fund to support retired horses. The states and the tracks are supported by these unselfish, noble creatures. I would support any legislation that would make it possible for this to happen. I think most racing fans would, too. The states and the tracks would get a few dollars less, but the horses responsible for putting on the show, would be taken care of post-career if they weren’t provided for. Without the horses, there is no show. The states and the track get no money. Some money could also be deducted from the purse money of races. It would ensure that the horses are provided for.

  3. I totally agree with your last paragraph, TRF has to be held accountable for what has occurred but the owners who foisted their horses off on TRF so they no longer had to be involved share a large part of the blame, too. A monetary contribution should accompany the horse to help fund care for the rest of the horse’s life.

  4. Teresa,

    I was interested in what your comments would be to the TRF debacle. I know this is an endeavor you are keen to support. You are the first I have read with a measured, mature reaction. Thank you.

    Most of the knowledgeable insiders elected to choose up sides and hurl accusations. There obviously is a problem so the energy should be applied to fixing it.

    Thoroughbred racing is composed of a myriad of fiefdoms, accountable to know higher authority.

    Centralized leadership would go along way to solving many many problems, to include mandatory financing for retired horses. Social Security for horses. Owners, breeders, tracks and betting establishments would pay into a fund not run by a racing insider.

  5. Responsible ownership is needed and if individuals don’t care for their horses then further ownership should be denied in my opinion. Strict licensing of owners and trainers should include requiring placement of retired horses in their care in good homes. Horses are not commodities to be bought and sold. The entire industry needs to address this problem because it is a huge public relations issue and ethical problem. Without the horses, there would be no game. They deserve a pension and good retirement, its little enough for what they have endured.

  6. Teresa,

    As always, many of your responders hit upon very salient points of criticism. Yes, of course owners should be dedicated to the long-term consequences of their business endeavors; breeders should be no less faithful to their produce than owners, even after point of sale; racetracks have a moral obligation to oversee what becomes of their lifeblood beyond the backstretch experience; every “racing” state really, really ought to spend as much attention on racehorse aftercare as it does on successfully raising boondogles and taxes; and patrons should pay more than passing interest to the subject. Of course!

    So, now I’ll step up onto my little soapbox:

    Unfortunately, the best intentions are not met with the same spirit of creative expansion that internally dominates our sport/business these days. Fifty years ago Thoroughbred horseracing was supported at its biggest stages for the most part by wealthy people who possessed large farms, and these devoted patrons spent the money necessary to maintain their sporting passions. No corners were cut, no expense was too great and no horse was unimportant. “Public” partnerships of the size now popular simply did not exist, so the question of racehorse retirement never really became a serious issue to those people who could afford it — way back then.

    At the same time, state capitols were not as invested in horseracing as they are now, so there was not the state drain on racetrack revenues that currently creates demands for too much racing to fund state coffers. The now-27-year-old sideshow business of horseracing, the highly marketed Breeders’ Cup extravaganza, was not then needed to generate interest in the game — we were considered the biggest spectator sport, beyond baseball, even!; there was not any need to generate more money to fund the breeding farms that were not yet beginning to fail.

    All financial elements of racing took a rapid 180-degree turn about fifty years ago with the competition posed by televised sporting events, the impact of the Viet Nam conflict and Flower Power, New York’s Off Track Betting scam, state lotteries and a host of other economic impactors that changed how people spent their liesure dollars. So now, the retired racehorse, owned by any number of partially able dreamers, is the unwitting victim of racing’s changing fortune.

    So much for my There’s Too Much Money In Horseracing tirade because the money isn’t properly spent. And we’re all accountable!

  7. Yes, there is a lot of information to sort through. One of the most valuable contributions I have is that there were sponsors paying for horses care. Horses often came to the TRF with funding to provide for their care. Of course not all horses had this luxury. The funds were not past on to the farms that care or cared for the horses. I in one instance had a horse for a person needing to place her because they were selling the farm where she boarded. This was a lovely Thoroughbred mare, that had gotten up in years after having a second career. She arrived with a cashiers check made to TRF for her care and a note stating that when the funds ran out for the foundation to contact her for more. While these are special circumstances they do exist. The farm caring for the horse rarely is given this knowledge, nor these funds in the manner in which they were intended to be used. That is my experience.
    The TRF has breeched their FIDUCIARY RESPONSIBILITIES to these horses. With the current situation not being addressed in an emergency manner. Horses shipped from my care on
    10-14-10 Were euthanized in KY from neglect and malnutrition, with a third horse falling hitting his head and dying. These horses were euthanized on March 2, 8 or 9.
    We are still awaiting conformation of the exact dates. TRF
    still has horses at the location were the neglect occurred.

  8. Pam, Thanks for the comment, though I wonder why you think trainers should be ultimately responsible for a horse’s retirement. Why should that obligation with the trainer, particularly if the owner isn’t responsible? Why should the trainer become financially responsible for an animal that he doesn’t own?

    For better or worse, racehorses ARE commodities: they are bought and sold, like other investments or pieces of properties. Unlike other pieces of property, though, they still need to be fed when their usefulness comes to an end.

    Marshall, I’m not sure that all horses were as well taken care of back then as we like to think. Many of them were, as you state, but I’ve read stories of horses ending up as shot on people’s farms when they couldn’t afford them anymore, or dying as they pulled milk trucks in early 20th century New York. I think that we just didn’t hear the bad stories as easily as we do now.

    I’m curious about how a national entity would make this problem any better, or how required purse deductions would. To what organizations would that money go? How would individual horses get taken care of? Who makes those decisions? Who decides where the horses go? I’d love to hear more about the workings of such programs. That sounds like a blog post in and of itself. 🙂

    Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to comment, to share your ideas and experiences.

  9. If trainers were responsible for the horses long-term welfare they might be more inclined to not work for owners who aren’t responsible equine owners. The treatment of horses today borders on criminal when they are disposed of by sale at auction that often results with their demise in foreign slaughter houses. While legislation is trying to stop this, it has stalled in Congress. I believe the thoroughbred industry has to look at this problem and address it in order to remain viable. I’m sorry that you feel that horses are pieces of property, since it implies they have few if any rights. I hope modern society will someday recognize this for the injustice that it is. Thank you for helping address the retirement issue.

  10. Teresa – thank you for a heartfelt commentary on the TRF disaster. It is a sad piece of news that the industry could have done without, and the official TRF response so far has been lukewarm at best.
    But to solely blame the TRF – what went wrong certainly has to be examined and those who failed the horses must stand accountable – does not help; the fact that rescue and retirement organizations are overrun with discarded racehorses speaks badly of an industry and a sport that does not provide for its athletes. (The discussion here is about the horses but the welfare of injured, disabled or retired jockeys is not a pretty subject either.)
    The industry produces too many horses, encouraged by breeder rewards and an emphasis on selling and pinhooking. But even when an owner breeds to race, not every one of his or her foals will become a successful racehorse, and inevitably more horses are produced than will ever set hoof on a track. As owner I feel that I am responsible for the horses I bring into this world and take stewardship of. All the horses my husband and I took on had been discarded by other owners – with no or little risk of penalty of doing so. I so agree with you, Teresa: Not many owner invest in a horse “thinking of it as a lifetime commitment.” And I,too, believe they should. Can owners, including us, run into bad luck and be no longer able to afford the upkeep of their animals? Absolutely! This is what an organization like the TRF should be there for: To help in exceptional cases and under reasonable circumstances. And under no circumstances should an organization like the TRF be run by racing insiders – has it not become a mere “feel better band-aid”for an industry that does not bother to think of a better solution at the beginning of the problem? I wholeheartedly agree with Bob that a new rule book is needed and a central authority to watch over those who have no voice and power of their own.

  11. Pam,

    I don’t think Teresa feels horses are simply “pieces of property.” I know she uses the “Horses are not pets” reference to acknowledge the fundamental reality that frequently lends itself to Thoroughbred-horse ownership as a business. As the operational component of this business, Thoroughbreds must be seen as not pets, but as profitable assets, or not.

  12. It’s time for racing to slip in a few fees like I see when I fly. Say “9-11 security” and everyone pays the extra $1.00. Let’s say “Ferdinand Memorial” and charge race track visitors a few extra pennies to save horses. Charge the owners – I’m not rich enough to own a race horse, but if I were, I’d be able to pay a fee each time that horse races to ensure a safe retirement. Extract a small fee with each stud fee, tax each name registration. Acknowledge that horses live well beyond a racing career and fund those lives in health and comfort. Folks, it’s not that hard or that onerous for everyone who participates in this sport to pay up to care for horses.

  13. Owners should be responsible for the horse until it dies. If they can’t afford it and no else can take it in, it should be humanely destroyed for human consumption and that owner should never be allowed to own a horse again. Even if he hits the lottery. Once u let a horse die ur done.

  14. Thanks to Teresa for the intelligent conversation and to everyone for your enlightening comments. Unfortunately you can’t legislate decency, and everyone has differing opinions about whose moral obligation it is, or which horses deserve retirement funds – so the answer might lie in setting industry-wide standards.
    Whatever happened to the idea of a “take percentage” that was bantered around a few years ago?
    A small (1-2%) of all revenues would be earmarked for thoroughbred retirement, along with audits to (hopefully) keep the greed factor to a minimum….a plan that has loopholes for sure, but perhaps a start?

  15. There is no doubt that we as an industry need to do a better job at caring for our horses once their racing careers are over. That is not to say that there aren’t a lot of people/owners/trainers that are doing a good job at retraining/placing/funding for their horses but far too many are slipping through the cracks. The main problem is pretty simple to explain but pretty tough to solve. That issue is money.

    It is easy to cast stones especially for those who have no idea how much it costs to care for racehorses. The sport is lacking in owners as it is mostly because the economic reality of the game is just so tilted away from owners being able to recapture anything but a small percentage of their initial investments plus expenses. Quite simply in many jurisdictions the purses are too low for potential owners to risk their hard earned money with not only no chance to recoup their money but hardly a chance to even get back half of what they are putting in. And guess what? With our friends at ICE and the dept of Labor about to make our jobs as trainers harder and even more expensive with more burdensome regulations the price of having a thoroughbred in training is going to go up once again. The plain truth is the vast majority of our current owners are already stretched to the point of seriously considering getting out. Naturally the economy hasn’t helped but the economics of the game are still very much upside down. Why am I going on this tangent? Because without judgment based on the morals of aftercare of horses, the reality is a very small percentage of owners are going to be able to care for horses forever at real world prices (not $3 a day which is a mindbogglingly low number). I’m sure some of the righteous will claim “they shouldn’t be in the game if they cant support their horses” but who will replace them? Why must it always be the owners that are supposed to pay for everything? In NY the newly elected horseracing hating Gov (By the old horse hating Gov)wants the owners to pay to run the Racing Commission despite the state taking hundreds of millions of dollars from the industry each year. This after the Jockey Club, horseman’s organization, backstretch fund and Jockey Insurance all take their slice of the owners pie of a purse earning. If the current 2.75% surcharge/tax holds owners in NY will be getting about 35% of the proceeds of a winning purse. You don’t have to be a math major to figure out this isn’t a very good deal considering how hard it is to win a single race on the NYRA circuit. Why the states shouldn’t contribute a portion of their take to create a post-race care fund is hard to figure. Sure the states are broke but if the bad PR continues to negatively impact handle the investment they would make wouldn’t be much different than the loss of revenue from lowered handle AND it could be the rare positive story for the politicians. Plus with the success of so many prison/horse programs there already is a connection of sorts.

    People have to understand where the trainer stands in this entire process. Probably 80% of trainers (maybe higher) in the business are living paycheck to paycheck with owners not really even obligated to pay them. Trainers that take too many moral stands or stands in general often find themselves with a shed row of empty stalls. To think that we should be obligated to pay for the after care of horses that we don’t own is wrong.

    When people say “owners” should pay for the aftercare of horses how do you define owners? Are you including every person that has owned a piece of the horse ever? Or the first person to own the horse? Or the last? So few horses have owners from birth till the end of their racing careers it is something that needs to be more clearly defined.

    The other issue which is not exactly a fun thing to think about but needs to be part of the discussion is the euthanasia of older or infirm horses. At some point you may wind up in a situation where you have to make a humane choice even though it is still difficult to do.

    I believe that this is a problem best solved regionally as anything national is too big and too costly to properly administer. Many tracks have really beefed up their after care programs though it is still not enough. But in the end this whole issue can be solved if we can just find the funds to cover the expenses. THAT is the really hard part.

  16. This is a cry for help and a cry for total accountability in this industry. Welfare organizations and well meaning individuals end up taking up the slack for the over breeding that is going on. I am a race fan; but a horse fan first. These athletes have no CHOICE in their life path. This problem of disposible horses will never be resolved unless owners and breeders are brought into the equation. This situation is liken to puppy mills which we all know are illegal in most states, its high time for the “foal mills” in TB racing to be brought to accountability.

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