07/26/2012 11:27AM

Hovdey: Nationwide network for aftercare a top priority

Barbara D. Livingston
Michael Blowen with Ogygian at Old Friends, which has its headquarters in Kentucky and a satellite farm in New York.

It’s summertime at the races, and once again you can’t throw a rock without hitting a fundraiser for retired racehorses.

From New York to California, there are galas and wine tastings and poker tournaments and silent auctions and all manner of ways to inspire kind folks to pony up charitable dollars in what everyone agrees is a pretty good cause. After all, the idea that a racehorse deserves a life of dignity and care even after that racehorse is no longer of commercial value is hardly a stretch. Put it up there alongside mom and apple pie, at least around the racetrack.

That the issue needs to be addressed at all remains one of the industry’s fundamental woes. Things probably were different in the days when the foal crop was less than 10,000, or when there was a preponderance of breeders who bred their horses to race rather than to sell, or when there was more of a demand for pleasure horses from a culture more at home with their touch and smell.

However it used to be, the modern fact remains that at some point in the economic evolution of the sport there grew to be an increasingly unmanageable abundance of Thoroughbreds who could not, to put it crudely, earn their keep. The lucky ones were bred and owned by people who felt responsible for the fate of all their horses and treated them accordingly. The unlucky ones were disposed of – “given away” became the euphemism – in the same manner an old couch is given away by putting it outside on the curb. Or worse.

The phenomenon of Thoroughbred retirement, rescue, rehabilitation, and adoption has grown as an altruistic counterweight to the concept of the racehorse as a commodity. Retirement organizations are cited as evidence that racing does indeed have a heart. But like most of the industry’s most constructive ideas, the movement has enjoyed no institutional core.

And so each summer there must be golf tournaments and karaoke nights and cocktail parties just to keep the dozens upon dozens of retirement and rehabilitation operations alive, when by this time it would have been reasonable to have expected an industry-wide solution in place. But then, it’s only been 26 years.

This reporter was in the room in early 1986 when the retired Los Angeles school teacher Grace Belcuore put forth the idea of a retirement home for racehorses. Belcuore wondered aloud what happened to geldings who were not like John Henry – her personal hero – when they reached the end of their racing days. She did not like the answers, so she established the California Equine Retirement Foundation.

Belcuore, who still runs CERF, never pretended to be the solution, but she did plant the flag. Over the ensuing quarter century, like-minded souls have stepped up to face the challenge of giving Thoroughbred horses a refuge after their racing and breeding days are done. A number of the names are familiar, many more are unsung, all are inspiring for their dedication to a cause that won’t go away.

And yet, here we are in 2012 still without a well-funded and efficiently operated nationwide network of retirement facilities. As a result, there persists a problem with Thoroughbred racehorses somehow wandering off the racetrack and into feedlots where buyers await to ship them to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada.

The anecdotal evidence of such betrayals sometimes comes with a happy ending, mostly because nobody finds out about the unhappy endings unless the horse is extraordinarily well known, like Ferdinand, who was slaughtered in Japan, or Exceller, who was slaughtered in Sweden.

Isabel’s Pearl, 14 at the time, was bought out of a Southern California feedlot sale in February of 2008 by someone monitoring the scene for Tranquility Farm (with which I am associated), the facility founded by former Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association president Gary Biszantz. Instead of ending up on a packed livestock trailer heading for the border, Isabel’s Pearl was steered by Tranquility Farm’s Priscilla Clark to Ridgewood Ranch, renowned as the “Home of Seabiscuit” in the Northern California town of Willits, where she became treasured as a descendant of the great horse himself.

More recently, there was Our Revival, age 12, who was one of 10 Thoroughbred mares rescued from a Texas auction known for supplying slaughterhouses. At one point in her racing career she was owned by John Botty, who some seven years ago became a regular contributor to the Old Friends Equine operation founded by his friend Michael Blowen by donating a $50 win ticket on a horse who paid $14 to win. The horse was Our Revival.

“There’s even a winner’s circle photo somewhere of me in there with John,” said Blowen, a former journalist who founded Old Friends in 2002. “And now look what’s happened. In a way she has come full circle, because now, after John heard about her rescue in Texas, she’s coming here to live with us.”

Old Friends, with its headquarters in Kentucky and a satellite farm in New York, is a niche operation with a twist. Blowen’s original intention was to provide not only a Thoroughbred sanctuary but also a tourist attraction stocked with retired stallions of familiar reputations, whose services at stud were no longer required. He achieved his goal with such well-known farm residents as Precisionist, Afternoon Deelites, Sunshine Forever, and Will’s Way, among others.

But then came popular geldings, as well as retirees of lesser repute, all of them welcome – as long as they agreed to be part of the tour.

“We’re not the only ones who love these horses,” said Blowen, referring to fellow travelers in the business. “We want people to come here and enjoy looking at them and hearing their stories. There was a guy visiting last week who’d just been to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He said it was fine, but he never saw one football player. Here he got to see Gulch, Ogygian, and Commentator.”

Gulch won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, Ogygian won the Dwyer and the Jerome, and Commentator was 2005 and 2008 New York-bred Horse of the Year.

If nothing else, the development of a reliable system for Thoroughbred retirement would be a great tool for public relations. Even if the game were not rocked on its heels this year by breakdowns at Aqueduct, doping scandals in Louisiana and New Mexico, and Triple Crown coverage obsessed more with the record of trainer Doug O’Neill than the ability of his horse, I’ll Have Another – even if none of those stories were in the news, Thoroughbred racing still would not be able to answer the question, “What happens when their careers have ended?” without blushing from shame.

This is why owners and breeders like Jack Wolf and Madeline Auerbach are so intent that the concept of  quality Thoroughbred “after care” becomes second nature to the business.

“Like all progress, it moves slowly,” said Auerbach is the head of the California Retirement Management Account (CARMA), which supports accredited retirement organizations in the state with funds that in part come from a fraction of a percent of purses.

“I’m very hopeful that every jurisdiction will have something like the CARMA model in place, and we’ll have a national program,” Auerbach added. “It may not happen while I’m still around, but I’m convinced it will happen.”

Auerbach has joined Wolf and other industry leaders in the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, a consortium of racing groups that hopes to be the nationwide fundraiser and accreditation resource for retirement facilities. Compared with Grace Belcuore’s cry in the wilderness from 26 years ago, there is a positive chorus of voices now seemingly inspired to provide a dignified retirement for all former racehorses, free from the threat of slaughter or neglect.

In the meantime, let the fundraising begin, from the opportunity to visit two-time Whitney winner Commentator on loan from Old Friends this summer in Saratoga Springs, to smaller gestures by quiet heroes like Donna Keen, whose Remember Me Rescue provided safe haven for Our Revival and the other mares rescued from slaughter in Texas in July.

On the first Sunday of the Del Mar meet, at a post-race paddock sale of horses ready to race, Keen and her husband, trainer Dallas Keen, offered their former racehorse True Swither as a pony prospect, with all  proceeds to be divided between Remember Me Rescue and CARMA. Julie Krone, my wife and (next to Laffit) favorite former jockey, donated her services by putting True Swither through his paces as the bidding took place.

When the hammer came down at $12,000, on a bid from owner Jim Ford, Krone dismounted, the crowd clapped, and the pony spooked. Later, the wife assured me it was an unrehearsed encore, since True Swither had been sacked out to handle everything except a round of applause, which he truly deserved. That $12,000 he fetched in support of racehorse retirement might be only a drop in a deep bucket, but it made a beautiful sound.