08/23/2012 12:27PM

Banned trainer pleads his case on anti-slaughter policy

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The case of Canuki and Cactus Cafe is nearing its conclusion, at least for the horses. The two Thoroughbreds became famous in May when their surprising return from the Richelieu slaughterhouse in Canada led the horsemeat company to stop accepting Thoroughbreds and raised questions about the effectiveness of racetrack anti-slaughter policies.

Canuki and Cactus Cafe are now in the hands of a horse welfare advocate who publicized the case while trainer Mark Wedig, 57, was ejected by Mountaineer Park on May 29 under the track’s anti-slaughter policy. Wedig, who retrieved them from the slaughterhouse two weeks after selling them to a slaughter buyer, denies that he knowingly sent Canuki and Cactus Cafe to slaughter. He says his ejection has devastated his life and effectively ended his 21-year career as a public trainer.

Wedig’s hearing to appeal the ejection took place June 29, and now he and the West Virginia Racing Commission are awaiting examiner Jeff Blaydes’s recommendation, which could come by mid-September. If the commission upholds Wedig’s ejection, other tracks are likely to bar him, too. Some already have. Wedig said he is unable to train at Mountaineer, Presque Isle Downs, and tracks owned by Penn National Gaming. He said he also tried to train at Woodbine, which does not have an anti-slaughter policy, but was not allowed there, either.

“My life has pretty much been ruined,” said Wedig, who currently owns two broodmares and three horses in training. “They’ve practically drove me to bankruptcy. I’m making no money. My owners, I guess they feel like I have the plague. I’ve lost all my owners. I’m hauling horses right now to try to make things happen. It’s very devastating.”

Testimony from Wedig’s hearing and a recent interview with him reveal new details about the case, which has shed light on the largely underground trade of ex-racehorses for meat. It has highlighted how volunteer horse welfare advocates often serve as informal chief detectives monitoring the path from racetrack to slaughter, how fast the transition from racehorse to meat horse can be as owners and trainers seek to sell horses they can no longer use or afford, sometimes to kill-buyers they know and sometimes unwittingly to unscrupulous agents. And although these horsemen might be subject to anti-slaughter penalties, the sale of horses for meat remains legal in the U.S.

The Canuki/Cactus Cafe story began April 23, when Wedig paid their then-owner, Barbara Price, $300 for the pair. On May 1, he hauled the horses from Beulah Park in Grove City, Ohio. Local horse welfare advocates, fearing Wedig had sent Canuki and Cactus Cafe to slaughter, notified Ohio stewards and Beulah racing officials. On May 11, after neither the advocates nor Ohio officials could confirm the horses’ whereabouts, Ohio stewards took action against both Wedig and Price for providing false information and impeding the investigation. Because he is a licensed trainer at Mountaineer in Chester, W. Va., Wedig also came under scrutiny from Mountaineer officials, who also had heard from Ohio officials and horse welfare advocates.

But according to documents presented at Wedig’s hearing, by May 3 Canuki and Cactus Cafe were already in the hands of Fred Bauer, a slaughter buyer from LaRue, Ohio. On that date, veterinarian Earnest D. Kearns examined them and 28 other horses for a USDA health certificate that would allow Bauer to ship the animals across the border to Canada. The paperwork Kearns signed May 3 lists Bauer consignor for the entire group, including one other Thoroughbred (an 8-year-old chestnut stallion with an unidentified lip tattoo), 23 Quarter Horses, one Haflinger mare, and three paint horses. Their destination, as noted on the paperwork, was Viande Richelieu, one of four facilities in Canada that slaughters horses for the foreign food market. Additional paperwork required for Canadian importation certifies the horses, including Canuki and Cactus Cafe, as fit “to travel to a slaughter facility.”

The Ohio Racing Commission notified the West Virginia Racing Commission of its May 11 action against Wedig, and the WVRC stewards’ office in turn notified Mountaineer officials. On or around May 12, Mountaineer racing secretary Rosemary Williams testified, she called Wedig to her office and asked him where Canuki and Cactus Cafe were and whether they were alive.

“He just said he didn’t know where they were,” Williams said in her testimony, adding that she gave him a copy of the track’s anti-slaughter policy and an affidavit “certifying that these horses haven’t gone to slaughter,” and asked him to review the affidavit with a lawyer. Wedig signed and presented the affadavit to Mountaineer officials May 19.

On May 18, according to USDA paperwork in the hearing record, Wedig had imported Canuki and Cactus Cafe − inaccurately called Cactus Club on USDA paperwork that day − from Canada via the Niagara Falls, N.Y., port of entry. According to the paperwork, “The horses were originally exported to Canada for immediate slaughter.”

Wedig produced both horses for West Virginia veterinarian John Day at the In Front Training Center, also known as the Barbarino training facility, near Mountaineer. Day identified them as Canuki and Cactus Cafe.

According to the official transcript from Wedig’s June 29 hearing in Newell, W. Va., Wedig trailered Canuki and Cactus Cafe to the Holiday Inn Express, where the proceedings took place in an effort to prove that he did not “directly or indirectly cause horses to be put to slaughter,” as the anti-slaughter policy at Mountaineer (and many other tracks) puts it. Blaydes and other hearing participants watched as the horses were unloaded and led around the hotel’s parking lot before Blaydes allowed them to be hauled away, in order to keep them out of the summer heat.

At the hearing, Wedig’s attorney, Lawrence Manypenny, pressed Mountaineer racing secretary Rosemary Williams to explain how Mountaineer could eject Wedig for violating the anti-slaughter policy when Canuki and Cactus Cafe had not been killed.

“Mr. Wedig made arrangements for that to happen,” Williams answered. “Once he found out that he was in trouble and that there were repercussions, he actually went and retrieved those horses.”

“So what?” Manypenny answered. “By your testimony of your own proposed no-slaughter policy, you’ve testified that to ‘put to slaughter’ is to kill the horse. The horses were not killed. You saw them today.”

“I did,” Williams said.

“OK,” Manypenny continued. “So how, by your own testimony, how did he violate the policy?”

“Just because he was able to retrieve the horses he was intending to slaughter does not mean that he did not violate that policy,” Williams answered.

In an Aug. 21 interview, Wedig said he never intended to sell the pair to slaughter and that he was unaware that Bauer, to whom he sold the horses, was a well-known agent for the Richelieu plant.

“He was a buyer, but I didn’t know he sent them to slaughter,” Wedig said. “When I purchased these horses, I bought them sight-unseen. When I picked them up 10 days later, they were so, so incredibly thin, I just couldn’t believe it myself. I’d seen these horses in December, and they were beautiful, just gorgeous, and I purchased them just to race, you know. So I sold them to Fred, and I had no idea they would go to a slaughter plant.”

After horse welfare advocates raised the alarm about the horses’ whereabouts and the search began to generate publicity, Wedig started getting calls from horse advocates. He said he called Bauer, who told him Canuki and Cactus Cafe had shipped to Canada.

“I contacted the firm up there to purchase them back,” Wedig said. “It’s never been done, and it’s extremely hard.”

Wedig said he “can’t reveal” specifically what he did to retrieve the horses and said that when Bauer gave him Richelieu’s phone number, “at that time I didn’t know what it was.” Wedig said Richelieu was “very accommodating,” and he drove his trailer to Quebec to pick the horses up from a holding pen. He said Canuki and Cactus Cafe were even thinner.

“I guess I wasn’t surprised,” he said, “because if they were − you know, like I said, I grew up on a farm, and this is what they do. When something comes in to butcher, whether it’s a cow or pig, their feed and water is taken away so there’s no or very little mess when they butcher them.”

Wedig said he is not opposed to anti-slaughter policies, which are now in force at numerous tracks, including those owned by Churchill Downs Incorporated, the Stronach Group, the New York Racing Association, and Beulah owner Penn National Gaming, as well as Suffolk Downs and Mountaineer Park.

“I think it’s a great policy, but I think it’s implemented in the wrong way,” Wedig said. “It’s one-sided. A lot of other people have been in my situation, and they’ve taken stalls or did some sort of penalty, but in my situation none of that happened. It was just out the door, blackballed. They’ve got to come up with a better plan.”

Another problem with the policies, Wedig said, is that “inside the fence they’re trying to implement them, but outside the fence it’s legal” to sell horses to slaughter.

“For me to be management-excluded, I don’t quite understand that penalty,” Wedig said. “When other ones before me maybe lost stalls or whatever. I kind of think that I’m a little bit of a hero, I guess, because I’m the one that went to Canada, and this is a first. Nobody’s recognizing that, I guess. I know I sold the horses to the wrong person, but like I said, we do the best we can.”

On Aug. 21, Wedig accepted a Thoroughbred rescue group’s offer for Canuki and Cactus Cafe, who now are at a farm near Columbus, Ohio, not far from Beulah Park. According to their new owner, Mary Johnson of the North American Thoroughbred Aftercare Coalition, the horses are a little underweight but apparently healthy. They eventually will be turned over to other facilities for retirement or adoption.

The two bays’ roundtrip from Ohio to Canada has changed the slaughter market for American Thoroughbreds. And Ohio steward Joe Deluca, one of the officials from Ohio who investigated Wedig and Price, said it also has focused racetracks’ and horsemen’s attention more closely on slaughter.

“The notoriety and publicity this case attracted, it made the racetracks realize they’ve got to take a more proactive stance on it,” Deluca said.

“Cactus Cafe and Canuki are the poster horses for the horses that have been slaughtered before them and that will be slaughtered after them,” Johnson said. “In the end, Mark Wedig did the right thing and relinquished these horses to this group. But we’ve just put a bandage on a hemorrhage. There are hundreds more at the tracks. This goes on weekly at tracks throughout the country. But this is a step in the right direction. Those involved in racing will now think about the future of their horses when they’re done racing.”