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Nonprofit organization locates homes for worn-out racehorses

November 05, 2008|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

BUCKEYSTOWN - Allie Conrad picks up a lead rope and begins walking the big chestnut down the lane to another field at Long Lane Farm. The horse moves gingerly because of cartilage problems in his ankles.

The horse, Thisbidsforyou, was bred to be a winner, as all racehorses are in the eyes of their breeders. Sired by Winning Bid and with a pedigree that includes Mr. Prospector, Secretariat and Northern Dancer in his bloodlines, he certainly had a chance. But bad ankles derailed his racing career.

But Thisbidsforyou got lucky - not once, but twice. Unlike thousands of other exhausted, broken-down thoroughbreds, Thisbidsforyou has a future, thanks to his last trainer, a humane horseman, and Conrad.

Conrad is executive director of Canter Mid Atlantic, a nonprofit organization that takes in worn-out racehorses, saving them from what could be a horrific end in a killing shed.

"Look at him," Conrad said, as Thisbidsforyou nuzzled her hair. "How could anyone put an air bullet in his head and then have him eaten as food?"

Conrad and a group of 30 volunteers are trying to save run-down and injured racehorses from being pumped up on steroids and painkillers that mask injuries so they can continue to race when they shouldn't and also from being shipped to auctions, where representatives of companies in Canada and Mexico are known to gather to buy the horses for food-processing plants.

It is at these plants that terrified horses are murdered with the bullets to which Conrad referred.

During the past three years, Canter Mid Atlantic has placed more than 45 rehabilitated former racehorses in new homes as show horses, riding horses and pets and enabled trainers and owners to sell or give away more than 3,000 unwanted horses to better situations on the nonprofit's Web site, www.canterusa.org/midatlantic. She has had to euthanize 15 others because their injuries were too severe for recovery.

Here near Buckeystown in Frederick County, at a 250-acre family-owned horse boarding farm, is one of the sites where Conrad rents space for Canter's recovering thoroughbreds. At Long Lane Farm, she is able to keep 11 horses. She boards four others in Poolesville, two in Damascus, three in Delaware, and two each in West Virginia and Virginia for a total of 24, which is Canter's financial limit.

Thisbidsforyou came to Long Lane Farm a few months ago after experiencing his first piece of good fortune - being claimed by Bowie-based trainer Fred Groves, who came to realize he had claimed a horse that had already been run beyond reason.

"I claimed a horse in bad shape, and I didn't know it," Groves, 59, said. "I thought he had a knee bothering him. But he had cartilage degeneration [that was being masked by drugs] in both his left and right ankles. About 40 percent gone.

"He'll make someone a good riding horse or a pet. He has such a nice disposition; I wasn't going to butcher him."

Thoroughbreds such as Thisbidsforyou come to Conrad with worried faces, with stress lines below their eyes and sunken pockets above. They come to her with wounded legs and ankles and depleted spirits.

They are damaged racehorses at the end of their careers, facing unknown and often desperate futures.

"They come here, and their muscles are very tense and they're body-sore," Conrad said as she led the way into an open field. "I like to do this for them. I just let them run free here in the fields for three months and let them be horses. While they're out here, their brains change. A few weeks in, their muscles will melt and be malleable as they let go of their stress. The little wrinkles under their eyes and the hollows disappear."

Conrad, 34, who works full time for a consulting firm in McLean, Va., has run the nonprofit for eight years. This year, she will operate with an annual budget of $60,000, an all-time high, accumulated through donations, fundraisers and grants from Thoroughbred Charities of America and Blue Horse Charities.

A good part of the funding also comes from selling the reconditioned and retrained horses, which bring in an average of $3,000 each. She said 100 percent of the money goes back into the program.

The organization continually tries to persuade trainers and owners to sell their worn-out horses to Canter for $300 to $600, the price most would sell for at auction. Then the organization pays the horses' veterinary bills, boarding and retraining costs.

Canter Mid Atlantic is one of several groups rescuing racehorses. Another is ReRun, which got a boost when part of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown's Haskell Stakes winnings were donated. Canter USA has seven programs, with branches in Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, New England, Texas, Pennsylvania and California. A program also is being started in Florida, and Conrad is about to start another at Delaware Park.

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