02/10/2012 3:09PM

Hovdey: Aftercare no longer an afterthought


The process by which Thoroughbreds are bred, for private use or for market, and then trained to compete in a setting of parimutuel wagering for personal or corporate profit is woefully inefficient and ultimately wasteful.

This despite the fact that it sounds so glib in theory – breed the best to the best and hope for the best – and in practice can be aesthetically pleasing and downright romantic, at least when orchestrated by individuals who do not care how much money they lose.

But the reality is harsh. Horses must eat every day and graze often. Raising them requires great hunks of real estate, secured by fencing and well watered. It takes 11 months to manufacture one of them from scratch and the better part of another year before they can begin to be monetized with any reasonable expectations of return.

In 2010, the most recent season for which The Jockey Club has compiled North American breeding and racing statistics, there were 68,235 individual Thoroughbreds who ran in at least one official race in the United States or Canada. It can be presumed those 68,235 horses ranged in ages from 2 on up, but for argument’s sake let’s figure that most of them were either 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, and therefore drawn from the foal crops of 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 and 2004.

According to The Jockey Club, the total number of foals registered in North America for those five years was 186,913. That’s 186,913 Thoroughbred foals brought into this world – or at least in this part of the Northern Hemisphere – in hopes they would grown up to join in the parade as viable racehorses and maybe even last a while. But by the time 2010 came around only 68,235 of them were available to answer the bell.

So what happened to the rest, upwards of a hundred thousand? Some of them who did not make it to 2010 as racehorses were named Curlin, Rags to Riches, Street Sense, Big Brown, Hard Spun, War Pass, Pure Clan, Desert Code, and Tiago, so there’s no need to worry. Their futures are reasonably secure. The vast majority, however, were not major stakes winners, destined for stud duty or pampered retirements. And it is that vast majority – the majority of each and every foal crop – that defines the Thoroughbred industry as wasteful and inefficient.

An industry is characterized not only by its impact on the economic well-being, but also by the disposal of its waste. Oil and coal get a bad rap but are cut considerable slack because of cultural dependency. Tanning, on the other hand, had a tendency to create more noxious waste than could be balanced by its contributions to the greater good.

The waste created by Thoroughbred racing and breeding – euphemized as “unwanted horses” – has finally become an issue of national significance. Stories abound of horse owners in economic distress and given precious few choices to lighten their load, and so horses are abandoned, sold with a blind eye turned, or given away with impunity. Add to that the fact that horses, even racehorses, can be legally sold and transported across some state lines and out of the country for slaughter, is it any wonder racing is becoming increasingly damned by sensitized citizenry?

The leaders of Thoroughbred racing finally may be getting the message. What has been shouted from the rooftops for the last two decades by impassioned individuals and private rescue and retirement organizations is now manifested in what is being called the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, a coming together of nearly every major racing group in an effort to address the need to provide for horses after their racing and breeding days are past.

At this point, the mandates of the alliance are twofold and seemingly direct. The alliance will raise money, and it will accredit and monitor the private rescue-retirement-retraining programs that will be applying for alliance funds.

These are variations on themes already composed. Blue Horse Charities, for example, was created in 2001 by Fasig-Tipton. It is funded by horse sales, and administered by Thoroughbred Charities of America – an organization established by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association – which appraises facilities from all over the country before issuing funds. And there are literally hundreds, from small farm owners who turn back pastures into retirement homes to such far-reaching organizations as the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, Old Friends, and Tranquility Farm, among many others.

Exactly one year ago, owner and breeder Gary Biszantz, a former president of TOBA and the primary benefactor of California’s Tranquility Farm, wrote a commentary for The Blood-Horse in which he challenged racing’s leaders to do exactly what they have done in forming the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, . . almost. Biszantz contends – and your reporter agrees – that until there is a codified funding mechanism attached to betting handle – handle generated by the very horses whose interests need to be served – there never will be a secure and lasting program in place.

“The Thoroughbred industry for many years has overlooked aftercare of these great athletes we watch and that bring us great excitement and thrills,” Biszantz wrote. “When many of these fine horses can no longer perform, they are often treated like objects to be quickly discarded.

“Takeout on wagering handle as extracted by the tracks and uncashed parimutuel tickets give us numerous opportunities to take a very small percentage of these funds and place them in escrow accounts,” Biszantz went on. “At year’s end these funds could be distributed to accredited retirement and rehabilitation farms all over the U.S. that want to take care of the horse and desperately need funding.”

There it is. All it takes is the will to make it happen. If the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance can provide the framework and the reliable funding for an industrywide commitment to the humane retirement of its equine athletes, it will have done its job. And then, as a bonus, you can go ahead and run the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup with heads held high.