05/24/2012 2:09PM

Anti-slaughter policies proving tough to enforce

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Where did Canuki and Cactus Cafe go? That question has been occupying racing officials in Ohio and West Virginia since the week before the Kentucky Derby, when a group of anti-slaughter advocates who had arranged foster homes for those two racehorses discovered both effectively disappeared May  1 when trainer and horse hauler Mark Wedig picked them up from Beulah Park’s barn area in Grove City, Ohio. A two-week search for the horses was ultimately successful, but the case highlights how difficult it can be to trace horses once they’ve left racetrack property. And it raises larger questions about racetrack anti-slaughter policies, including whether those in-house rules are enforceable and whether they have helped drive the racehorse slaughter trade underground.

“At least when they were going to the auctions, you could go to Sugarcreek or New Holland or Unadilla and find a Thoroughbred,” said Mary Johnson, a rescue volunteer who helped find foster volunteers for Canuki and Cactus Cafe. “Now these horses just disappear. In a way, the policies have hurt the horses, because now the trainer just hauls the horse off the track, takes the horse to a kill buyer. This happens at every track. More so at the low-level tracks, but it happens at the big tracks, too.”

Anti-slaughter policies became common in 2008, after Eight Belles’s breakdown and an HBO documentary about the racetrack-to-slaughterhouse journey of 4-year-old No Day Off inspired public outcry over racehorse welfare, including widespread condemnation of horse slaughter. Today, numerous tracks have these policies, including those operated by Churchill Downs Incorporated, the Stronach Group, New York Racing Association, and Beulah owner Penn National Gaming, as well as Suffolk Downs and Mountaineer Park, among others. In general, they forbid owners and trainers from directly or indirectly causing a horse to be put to slaughter, and they threaten a range of penalties, including loss of stalls or ejection. It’s difficult to know how common violations are, or how tracks have handled them, partly because there is no central reporting database for tracks’ in-house policy infractions.

“I think the tracks have very good intentions,” said Beulah steward Joe Deluca, who participated in the Canuki/Cactus Cafe investigation. “They don’t want these horses to go to slaughter, and in some cases I think the owners absolutely don’t want these horses to go to slaughter. However, the way it’s structured it’s a policy, how are you going to enforce it? How does a track prove it? If I take a horse out to Farm K over here, leave him there for a day, then someone picks him up and takes him to slaughter, I can say, ‘I didn’t know what was happening to him.’ It’s difficult to follow the trail, because they always pass it off to the next guy.”

Establishing horses’ chain of custody is especially difficult in the private market. The Canuki/Cactus Cafe situation is a case in point. Wedig indicated on Beulah’s exit paperwork that he was taking the horses to an Ohio farm, then later told Deluca they went to West Virginia, where Wedig is a licensed trainer. Beulah officials, unable to determine the horses’ location, took action in early May against both Wedig and the horses’ last owner, trainer Barbara Price, for providing false information and impeding the investigation. Price has been ruled off for a year and fined $1,000; she did not appeal. Wedig, who was not licensed in Ohio this year, has been put on a “stop list,” which requires him to appear in front of the Ohio Racing Commission and answer questions about the case in order to become eligible for a racing license in the state.

Neither Price nor Wedig returned calls for this story.

Almost three weeks after signing Canuki and Cactus Cafe out of Beulah, facing an Internet campaign to find the horses and the threat of ejection from Mountaineer on top of the Ohio ruling, Wedig called Deluca and told him, “I got them back.” On Preakness weekend, West Virginia state veterinarian John Day identified the horses as the missing pair.

Wedig has signed an affidavit saying he did not send the horses to slaughter, according to Mountaineer racing secretary Rosemary Williams.

“From our legal standpoint, he has complied with everything our legal department has asked,” Williams said.
But Wedig declined to tell Deluca where the horses had been since May 1. Pictures taken shortly before they left Beulah’s backstretch showed both horses in good training condition, except for a gash on one of Canuki’s legs that had been treated and stitched. But Deluca said both were malnourished with abrasions by May 19.

Collecting proof that a horse has fallen into the underground slaughter pipeline is a key problem in enforcing anti-slaughter policies, activists and track officials say.

“The only way you’re going to get proof is to follow them,” rescuer Johnson said of kill buyers. “And they shake it up: They usually pick up on Tuesday, then they move to Thursday, then they skip two weeks and come back on a Wednesday.”

Attorney Maggi Moss, a racehorse owner and anti-slaughter advocate, agreed collecting good evidence is difficult but said enforcement isn’t.

“You have the legal ability as a racetrack or a racing commission to tighten and be more diligent in their enforcement of this rule if they are willing to do it,” Moss said. “Do they have the legal precedent? Yes. Do they have the ability to do it? Absolutely. The problem is, will they do it?”

“From a resource point of view, there’s limitations on what we can do,” said Thoroughbred Racing Associations president Christopher McErlean, who also is vice president of racing for Beulah operator Penn National Gaming. “In general, this whole situation is frustrating, because the racetracks are looked to as the enforcement vehicle or the investigative vehicle, and, quite honestly, they’re not our horses. We don’t own them, we don’t train them. These are property of owners and trainers. They should be the ones responsible for the welfare of these horses.”

Deluca said he would like the Association of Racing Commissioners International to create a model anti-slaughter rule that could create a violation database and levy strong penalties, including loss of a violator’s license. The West Virginia Racing Commission already is moving in that direction by drafting a rule modeled on Mountaineer’s anti-slaughter language. That rule could come into effect in 2013.

Mountaineer racing secretary Williams applauds that effort but also says she believes Mountaineer’s current policy is working.

“This is a prime example of people doing due diligence and people having to explain themselves,” she said of the Canuki/Cactus Cafe incident. “This was a Beulah issue that landed in our lap because [Wedig] was licensed here. Once we found out about it, he had to explain himself. Is it working all the time? I hope so, but I don’t know that.”

Rescue volunteer Mary Johnson said she doesn’t believe racetrack anti-slaughter policies are preventing enough horses from dying in slaughterhouses. But publicizing the disappearances of horses like Canuki and Cactus Cafe might spur racetracks to investigate potential violations.

“I believe the publicity made this possible,” she said of Canuki’s and Cactus Cafe’s return. “The policy has been on the books for a number of years at both Mountaineer and Beulah, and the Thoroughbreds still go to kill.”