09/08/2008 12:00AM

Gone, but not done fighting


As the legend goes, the great Castillian general known as El Cid was mortally wounded in defense of Valencia at the end of the 11th century. Fearing their troops would be demoralized by the news, El Cid's resolute wife strapped the fallen warrior upright aboard his white Andalusian stallion and sent them racing into battle. The enemy saw this and fled, terrified at the sight of the apparently indestructible El Cid.

At least, that's the way Charlton Heston played it in the movie.

John Hettinger died at his home at Aikendale Farm in New York last Saturday, at the age of 74. And so another leader falls. After a lifetime dedicated to the health of the Thoroughbred racing industry, the fact that Hettinger is gone before his final battle was won should not reflect at all upon the man. Rather, let it signify the persistent nature of the enemy.

Hettinger was a Yale grad, a historian, a horseman, and a shrewd businessman who in 1991 rescued the 93-year-old Fasig-Tipton sales company with an infusion of $3.6 million of the Hettinger family fortune, effectively taking control of more than half the company stock.

"John said he was at a point in his life where he wanted to make a commitment - 'It's been a great old company,' as he put it," said D.G. Van Clief Jr., who had succeeded his father on the Fasig-Tipton board of directors. "Frankly, I can't think of any other person in the industry who would would have been willing to undertake that risk at that time."

Hettinger's gamble paid off handsomely last spring when Fasig-Tipton was sold to Synergy Investments of Dubai. But that, noted Van Clief, was never the point.

"He wasn't really looking for anything in return," Van Clief said. "It was born out of his passion for the industry."

Hettinger was gratified enough to see Fasig-Tipton resume its position in the sales marketplace as an alternative to the behemoth Keeneland. Anyway, by then he was turning his attention to the problem of Thoroughbred retirement and to the stark reality that many former racehorses ended up slaughtered and the meat sold for human consumption.

Dapper, erudite, and a gentleman to the core, Hettinger was described by Van Clief as "retiring but not reticent." Nothing impassioned Hettinger like the image of horses going to slaughter.

"The slaughter of horses is a convenient garbage pail, and nothing more," he said, dismissing the twisted logic that slaughter was a "humane alternative."

"There are those who are apologists for slaughter and wedded to the status quo," Hettinger wrote in The Blood-Horse in 2003. "One of their most commonly heard arguments is 'Where would all the horses go? Our concern is to keep them from being mistreated.' We believe these arguments to be mistaken, sometimes cynical, and occasionally surreal." He then proceeded to rip those arguments to shreds, one by one.

Two years ago this week, Hettinger was guarded in celebrating the passage of a bill by the U.S. House of Representatives intended to ban the sale and transport of horses for slaughter in the United States .

"As long as anything is up for consideration in Washington, D.C., you can be sure that it will be decided on any basis except merit," Hettinger predicted. "I know that if it gets to the floor of the Senate, it will pass. I know that if it does not get to the floor of the Senate, it will be because the usual suspects are at work." Those included the American Quarter Horse Association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and the cattle lobby.

At the time, Hettinger conceded he was not in the best of health. The brain tumors that finally killed him were beginning to take their toll. That did not stop him from enjoying his horses at the farm, nor from applying steady pressure in the fight to eradicate any trace of horse slaughter, as long as he could raise his voice.

Since then, the three remaining slaughterhouses in the U.S. have been closed, although the practice of selling and transporting horses for slaughter in Canada and Mexico still exists, since there are many states offering legal corridors for such traffic. Even in a state like California, where selling and transport for slaughter is illegal, a lively trade in forsaken horses thrives just beneath the weak radar of enforcement.

As Hettinger feared, Congress adjourned in September 2006 before the Senate could take up the bill. The new Congress seated in January 2007 has so far failed to enact legislation, although another bipartisan House bill was introduced in July. This new bill, designated HR6598, would amend the animal cruelty provisions of the federal penal and criminal code (Title 18) to include the selling and transport of horses for slaughter, putting the practice on the same level as the interstate dog-fighting enterprise that sent NFL star Michael Vick to the penitentiary.

If this bill is stalled, there will be another, and another, with much of the effort backed by a man who may be gone, but never forgotten.

"If this isn't ended by the time I go out, I have provided in my will for them to have no peace," Hettinger vowed two years ago, targeting the enablers of slaughter. "And I mean that. That's the only thing I'm in a position to guarantee - they will have no peace."

Mount up.