04/09/2009 12:00AM

Horse slaughter: Don't ask, don't tell


Of the 100 Thoroughbred horses who went through a livestock auction ring last Friday night at David R. Chambers & Sons in Unadilla, N.Y., 78 were bought, given health tests, and taken to new homes, according to John Chambers, the auction company president. The other 22 were bought by a killer and shipped to Canada to be slaughtered.

"They were the worst-looking things you ever saw," Chambers said. "What was anyone going to do with them? They weren't good for anything. What are you going to do, put them on the White House lawn? If you can't afford to feed these horses, you have to get rid of them, and the only way I know to do that is to send them to the slaughterhouse."

Chambers & Sons is one of many livestock auction houses in the United States that are no strangers to the racing industry, though few people with direct associations to the auction houses will admit it. Still, those people do exist, racing officials said this week, and the issue of how to curtail the practice of sending unwanted horses through an auction - where it's possible that they will end up in a slaughterhouse in Canada or Mexico - has the racing industry scrambling for answers as the sport heads into the intense spotlight shining on the Triple Crown trail.

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The issue of racehorse welfare made headlines last week when seven horses owned by prominent New York horseman Ernie Paragallo were found in a livestock auction pen in New York. According to a welfare organization that bought four of the horses, the horses were malnourished, infested with lice and parasites, and awaiting shipment to a slaughter facility in Canada. In addition, 13 other horses owned by Paragallo were shipped to slaughter facilities after going through the auction ring, the welfare organization said.

The incident has inflamed passions that one racing official likened to the debate surrounding abortion. On the issue of horse slaughter, few people take the middle ground, and both sides show little respect for the other's position even though there are enough gray areas to make it difficult to enforce a wholesale ban on the practice.

The Paragallo incident is a case in point. Paragallo has acknowledged that he offered to give away the 20 mares free of charge through a fax sheet he distributed around New York racetracks and farms. He said a man purporting to represent a Florida breeder took the horses but later called and complained that several of the horses were thin, Paragallo said. Paragallo said that he was never told the horses would be dropped off at the livestock auction instead of being shipped to Florida.

"I don't send my horses to slaughter," he said.

The policy, basically, is that no horse should leave the Suffolk Downs backstretch and end up at one of these facilities where horses are being processed. But it's difficult.

- Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer, Suffolk Downs

Racing officials said that the Paragallo incident was far too common. Owners, breeders, and trainers frequently do not vet out the people who offer to take unwanted horses, sometimes because of a willful ignorance of where the horses might end up. It's the racing industry's version of "don't ask, don't tell." And with the widespread economic troubles facing nearly every industry, the practice could produce more horse fatalities.

"People are giving away horses all the time because it's very hard to sell horses that are no longer wanted, especially now," said Jay Hickey, the president of the American Horse Council, which started the Unwanted Horse Coalition several years ago to educate horse owners about slaughter and options offered by retirement facilities. "So if you are giving them to a person who says that I am going to sell them, then you have a responsibility to check out the references of that person."

The New York State Racing and Wagering Board has started an investigation into the care of Paragallo's 177 horses at Center Brook Farm; Alex Waldrop, the president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which is seeking to improve the public image of racetracks, has said that he hopes regulators "move swiftly to impose the most severe penalties applicable" in the case; and Ogden Mills Phipps, the chairman of The Jockey Club, said in a statement that the organization has the right to deny someone the privilege of registering foals if that person "has killed, abandoned, mistreated, neglected or abused, or otherwise committed an act of cruelty to a horse." The Jockey Club did not mention Paragallo by name.

The issues of slaughter and neglect touch so many raw nerves because horses are the main ingredient in a billion-dollar industry and because the culture surrounding the horse - the Old West and the open range - bristles at the suggestion of outsiders dictating the best way to care for animals. If shelters can kill millions of perfectly healthy cats and dogs without a public outcry, why can't Thoroughbred owners get rid of horses that are at risk of neglect, abandonment, or worse? If an already profitable dairy farmer can cull his herd, why can't Thoroughbred breeders? And what's the difference between slaughter and euthanasia?

If you are giving them to a person who says that I am going to sell them, then you have a responsibility to check out the references of that person.

- Jay Hickey, president, American Horse Council

Diana Pikulski, the executive director of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, said that the difference is "between putting a horse down in its own paddock or putting it through the worst thing you could possibly put a horse through" by sending it to a livestock auction, where professional transporters buy stock to sell to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada. (No horse slaughterhouses exist in the U.S. anymore due to a mix of court rulings and federal and state laws.)

"The road to the kill pen, the road to the slaughterhouse, being put in a slaughterhouse, where they do not kill humanely, there's nothing worse a horse could experience," Pikulski said.

Racing officials said they do not have accurate counts of how many racehorses are slaughtered each year, but officials in anti-slaughter movements contend that the numbers are declining. In part, the officials said, slaughter is becoming less common because of policies recently adopted by racetracks and horsemen's groups that are designed to ban horsemen who deal with slaughterhouses or associates of the companies.

In addition, many racetracks and racing organizations, including The Jockey Club, have recently put in place programs to funnel donations to retirement organizations and offer alternatives to horsemen who had previously given their horses away. A handful of horsemen's organizations - mostly at smaller tracks where horses are more likely to be reaching the end of their careers - have liaisons who work with trainers to find homes for unwanted horses, creating a middleman that gets between the trainer and the person who shows up with an empty trailer looking for free or cheap horses.

Suffolk Downs in East Boston was the first track to institute a policy designed to punish horsemen associated with the practice of horse slaughter. Last year, the track banned an owner and four licensed trainers from the grounds, contending that one of the trainers had asked the other three trainers for unwanted horses so that they could be shipped to a therapeutic riding program. Instead, the horses were found in a pen at a livestock auction in Pennsylvania.

Although the trainers said they did not know that the horses would be shipped to a livestock auction, Suffolk Downs banned them to send a strong message that its horsemen could not fail to take full responsibility for the fate of their racehorses.

It's inconceivable to me that I would sell a horse to slaughter, but it's the choice of the owner.

- John Sikura, owner, Hill 'n' Dale Farm

Suffolk's chief operating officer, Chip Tuttle, a former marketing executive, said this week that the track's policy is difficult to enforce but still the right one, considering the bruising the industry is taking in a world where animal-rights movements have grown.

"The policy, basically, is that no horse should leave the Suffolk Downs backstretch and end up at one of these facilities where horses are being processed," Tuttle said. "But it's difficult. Does that mean a horse shouldn't end up there after three days of leaving Suffolk - three weeks, three months? Still, it's a whole different world now. We can't go on as an industry appearing as if the welfare of the horse is not a primary concern."

The same policy has been adopted by Magna Entertainment Corp. and Churchill Downs Inc., the country's two largest racetrack operators. In addition, Mountaineer Park in West Virginia has adopted the policy. Typically, the country's smaller tracks have undocumented reputations as feeders for slaughterhouses.

The NTRA, which launched an accreditation program this year that requires tracks to form a relationship with retirement organizations, has not yet decided if the accreditation program will require racetracks to also adopt policies banning associations with slaughter, according to Keith Chamblin, the association's vice president of marketing. The reason, Chamblin said, is that the organization has not been able to get "widespread consensus on what is 'indirect or direct' involvement" with slaughterhouses.

"It's something that took up a lot of our discussion when forming the accreditation requirements," Chamblin said. "We're not there yet, but we anticipate getting there."

Officials of the New York Racing Association - which operates the three tracks where Paragallo races most of his horses - also said this week that they were devising a policy similar to that in place at Suffolk, Churchill, and Magna. In the past, according to Charles Hayward, the chief executive of NYRA, the association had swept aside concerns about slaughter because the track's purses are so high that it wouldn't make economic sense to sell a horse to a killer. But a horse that doesn't make the grade at NYRA is shipped somewhere, and that could be to a place that leads "indirectly" to a slaughterhouse, Hayward said.

"The reality is that a number of Paragallo's horses were horses that once raced at our tracks, so we have some responsibility," Hayward said. "What we want to say is that you have a responsibility to know exactly where a horse is going to go. Unless you act responsibly, we're going to hold you accountable."

But that trail of responsibility is long. Is the breeder who bred a bad foal in some way responsible? Is the trainer who drops a horse down the claiming ladder in some way responsible? Is the farm owner who makes a decision to keep unproductive mares on the back forty without the care and supervision shown to other horses in some way responsible? Those are the types of horses that most frequently end up at slaughterhouses. The gray areas mix and mingle.

John Sikura, the owner of Hill 'n' Dale Farm in Lexington, said that he has mixed feelings on slaughter. Hill 'n' Dale is a large commercial farm that has approximately 400 mares during breeding season, and 80 of those are owned by Sikura and his partners. Sikura said that he has never sold or given away a horse that could have ended up at a slaughterhouse, and he said that failing to care for a horse you own is "not only negligent, I think it's criminal."

Still, Sikura said that he was reluctant to condemn slaughter. "It's extremely satisfying to make these all-encompassing statements, but I don't think it's entirely defensible," Sikura said. "It's inconceivable to me that I would sell a horse to slaughter, but it's the choice of the owner. What can be done with all these horses, especially now, when you have horses that were once on the margin who are now economic liabilities? I don't like to see morality legislated, but I would like to see the industry make a better effort to fund retirement programs and legislation that could make slaughter defensible, as far as good transport conditions and regulations that protect that."

Pikulski, of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, said she's optimistic about the racing industry's chances of stemming the flow to slaughterhouses, but it is going to take a recognition of the pressures that horse owners face and realistic, well-funded programs to give all horsemen incentives to act in the horse's best interests, no matter what the ambiguities may be.

"If you look around, you see that almost everyone in this industry wants to do the right thing," Pikulski said. "There's always rotten eggs, bad apples. But the vast majority of the people in this industry love horses, and maybe it's unfortunate to have to say this, but sometimes you have to give them a way to easily do that."