06/07/2017 2:46PM

Hovdey: Aftercare problem has painless solution

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Ideas. Remember them? Indoor plumbing, national parks, the interstate highway system. They confronted fundamental challenges and changed the culture, creating a better world in which fresh problems arose, but at least the old ones were forgotten.

Saturday’s Belmont Park program, chock-full of major races in support of the Belmont Stakes, is a good idea, though derivative. The Breeders’ Cup laid down the template in 1984, and it still works, especially on days like Saturday, when neither the Kentucky Derby winner nor the Preakness winner is showing up for the third jewel in the Triple Crown.

Quality retirement for racehorses, on the other hand, is not an idea. It’s a challenge. A national, well-funded aftercare program for Thoroughbreds whose racing and breeding days are over is every bit as necessary to the health and welfare of the industry as uniform medication rules, support for disabled jockeys, and sensibly priced parimutuel takeout.

It has been more than 30 years since Monique Koehler began the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation in the East and Grace Belcoure launched the California Equine Retirement Foundation out West. For most of that period, the growing number of retirement farms and sanctuaries have operated hand to mouth, supported primarily by generous patrons with the income and inclination to help the cause. There were also fund-raisers. Lots of fund-raisers.

More recently, racing’s institutions have come into the picture with contributions through Thoroughbred sales, starting fees, stud fees, and donations attached to purse distribution. The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance was established in 2012 by the Breeders’ Cup Ltd., The Jockey Club, and Keeneland Association to act as an umbrella organization for fund-raising, funding distribution, and accreditation of retirement facilities requesting funds. In 2016, the TAA distributed $2.48 million in grants to the 64 accredited organizations nationwide operating upward of 160 sites.

That’s all great, but it’s not enough.

It is not enough because the challenge of caring for retired geldings and breeding stock increases faster than funds can be raised in the current manner. It is not enough because individual donations can dry up on a whim, or a death in the family. It is not enough because no sport exists in isolation, and judgment is passed on the way the athletes are treated after the final whistle has blown.

Of course, if all the owners of Thoroughbreds would take responsibility for their aftercare, the problem would be solved. Sad to say, there is a better chance of peace in the Middle East. That is why it was so encouraging to hear a good idea proposed at the recent Pan American Conference by the respected racetrack marketing executive Allen Gutterman.

Gutterman is a man who has never seen a half-empty glass in his life. At one time or another, he led the marketing departments of The Meadowlands, NYRA, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita, tirelessly flogging the idea that Thoroughbred racing was an endeavor worthy of support by the largest possible segment of the population.

Gutterman now serves on racing-industry advisory committees, so why not take his advice? He looked at the aftercare funding model and saw an untapped opportunity to create a consistent income stream for retired Thoroughbreds with precious little impact on the stakeholders making the contributions.

Gutterman’s idea would add a small amount – as in $5 small – to premium ticket prices for the game’s greatest events. We all know what he’s talking about: the Triple Crown, Breeders’ Cup, Haskell Day at Monmouth, Pacific Classic Day at Del Mar, Arkansas Derby Day at Oaklawn Park, and so on. But Gutterman did not restrict his idea. Any racetrack with a popular event luring a vigorous live gate would be welcomed into the fold.

“I have a tremendous amount of faith in the generosity of racing fans and their love of the horses,” Gutterman said. “Just about every other corner of the industry has in some way stepped up to help support our equine athletes after they’ve reached the end of their value as commodities. I think if you asked most customers attending big events if they would be willing to add a small amount to the ticket price – often paid for with a corporate credit card – they would jump at the chance to make a difference in the lives of the horses they have followed as fans and horseplayers.”

Most good ideas are simple, blessed with a clarity of purpose, and reap rewards exponentially greater than any investment. The benefits derived from a comprehensively funded aftercare program are abundant. Potential investors would appreciate being part of a sport that took care of its own. A harsh talking point of the animal-rights movement would be neutralized. Even the dark shadow of horse slaughter as a retirement alternative could dim, perhaps even disappear.

According to Gutterman, rough estimates indicate that $2.5 million to $3 million could be raised for aftercare on top of what is already generated. In the end though, the implementation of the idea will require major players like Churchill Downs Inc., NYRA, Breeders’ Cup Ltd., and The Stronach Group to lead the way. Without them, the care of retired racehorses will continue to rely heavily upon the thin gruel of poker nights, bake sales, and the silent auctions of recycled memorabilia to raise not nearly enough money to do the job.

Some ideas are at least worth a try. This one could be worth a whole lot more.