Greener pastures for retired horses

Thoroughbreds: More nonprofit groups have taken up the cause of racehorses that have lost their ability to win, place or show.

May 11, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

As a field of thoroughbreds prepares to race in Saturday's Preakness, a growing movement of nonprofit organizations has emerged to deal with what has long been one of horse racing's most hidden problems -- the fate of competitors whose running days are past.

Spurred by stories of racehorses led to slaughter because their owners were no longer paying for their upkeep, groups that take in horses and retrain them for new careers have gained visibility nationwide.

They range from one of the newest entries, ReRun in Kentucky, to one of the oldest, the New Jersey-based Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which places horses in a rehabilitation program at Maryland's Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for juvenile offenders.

"Racing is a business," said Herb Moelis of Middletown, Del., who for years has raised money for horse-rescue organizations with an auction of breeding rights with stallions. "When a horse gets hurt at 4 years old and is going to be lame, to pay for 15 to 20 years [of life] is a difficult thing to ask an owner."

Moelis plans to distribute grants totaling about $400,000 -- $100,000 of which will be given out at this year's Preakness.

The bond between horses and humans -- often powerful -- sometimes transcends the economics.

Ask Scott Posey, a former trainer who nursed an injured racehorse back to health and is trying to find a home for him. Posey can't keep him because another retired racehorse, 1996 Maryland Million Classic winner Frugal Doc, already lives on his Dayton farm as a pet. "They have the same right to life I do," he said.

More groups than ever are basing their fund raising on establishing such human-equine relationships, either online or on the farm.

Days End Farm Horse Rescue, a horse adoption program in Howard County, offers "foster care" starting at $50 a month. Sponsors of rescued horses can visit to assist in their grooming and care.

Two groups on the Internet -- the Exceller Fund, named for a famous racehorse killed in a Swedish slaughterhouse, and the Thoroughbred United Retirement Fund (TURF) -- offer "sponsorships" of horses at the foundations to donors, with pictures and updates on their progress.

Horse Lovers United Inc., a Salisbury group, takes in mostly Standardbred racers.

Finding homes for thoroughbreds after their racing careers are over can be challenging. To mellow their temperaments, many have been altered so that they cannot breed. Born to run, they can be tough to ride. Some have debilitating injuries.

While Maryland's $700 million racing industry has begun to support the movement, the subject of retiring racers still raises difficult questions. Should racehorses be treated like business commodities, bought and sold without passion, or treasured like pets? Should donations for their salvation come at the expense of charity for humans?

While lauding the organizations' work, horse owners bristle at the notion that large numbers of thoroughbreds are sold for horse meat, a delicacy in several European countries. Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said most owners go to great lengths to find safe homes for their retiring horses -- without an organization's help.

"I think this whole notion that horse owners don't take care of their horses and are looking to send them to slaughter is substantially inaccurate," Hoffberger said. "The cost of keeping these things and the medical care they get is more than they spend on their kids."

Even well-intentioned owners may not always be able to control what happens to a racehorse. Thoroughbreds can be lost in claiming races to buyers with cash in hand, or to a middleman who says he has a "good home" for a horse.

That's what happened to Robert A. Chernov, who sold several thoroughbreds to a Bowie track worker when Chernov suddenly took ill in 1992. They ended up at a slaughterhouse, along with a filly named Earth to Mary that Chernov had entrusted to a trainer.

"I've never owned a horse since," said Chernov, of Wakefield, R.I., who searched slaughterhouse records hoping in vain that his favorite filly had escaped a cruel death. "I think it's a despicable game."

The slaughter of U.S. horses reached a peak in the late 1980s, when a change in tax laws and a trend toward over-breeding flooded the market with thoroughbreds. Since then the number has fallen, from an estimated 300,000 in 1989 to 72,800 last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The government does not keep statistics on how many of those horses are thoroughbreds or racehorses.

"People have learned to deal with the tax laws," said Steven D. Ralls, director of legislative affairs for the American Horse Council. "A lot of recreational riders have gotten a lot more involved in the industry, so there are more outlets for horses."

So why do thoroughbreds, the equine elite, end up at slaughterhouses?

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