11/11/2015 4:41PM

Hovdey: Turning afterthought into aftercare

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Veterans Day is that most hypocritical of American holidays. The gap between the laudatory praise heaped upon former soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines and the reality of their treatment at the hands of an unwieldy government bureaucracy is vast. It does not help that 99 percent of the American public is barely brushed anymore by direct involvement with the military experience (owning a check-cashing shop outside an Army base does not count). Nor does it seem to make any difference how many politicians wrap themselves in the flags deployed on Veterans Day, vowing to make things better.

Thoroughbred racing has had its own veterans problem for decades. Ever since the U.S. foal crop mushroomed to answer international demand – doubling between 1970 and 1985 – there has existed the challenge of what to do with excess or nonproductive inventory, the inventory in this case being a half-ton sentient creature answering to names like Annabelle’s Dancer or My Boy Skippy.

The European and Asian meat markets offered a ready solution, but eventually the 50,000 or so U.S. Thoroughbreds slaughtered each year became unpalatable to enough of a segment of the animal-welfare movement that passion arose to end the practice.

Pro-slaughter legislators and their enablers in the equine world – most notably the American Quarter Horse Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association – have kept Congress from enacting an outright ban on both domestic slaughter and the transport of horses for foreign slaughter. This has forced the good guys to chip away where they can through various work-arounds, like defunding federal slaughterhouse inspections and tightening enforcement of environmental laws. There are currently no operating slaughterhouses in the U.S., but that has not kept slaughter entrepreneurs from legally trying.

Even some foreign governments have indirectly helped the cause by calling into question the levels of medication used by American performance horses that could linger in their meat. The idea was taken up by the U.S. Senate last May with the introduction of S.1214, the Safeguard American Food Exports Act, whose explicit purpose is “to prevent human health threats posed by the consumption of equines raised in the United States.”

This is not exactly the banner you want your business to fly – “Eat Stymie and Die” – but the point is well taken. American horses are neither raised nor used to be eventually eaten. Selling them for slaughter is merely a market-driven form of disposing of unwanted inventory. Got a problem with that?

Even without legislation banning the practice, there will be fewer U.S. Thoroughbreds shipped for foreign slaughter over the coming years for the simple reason that there are fewer U.S. Thoroughbreds. For the past five years, the foal crops have fallen to pre-1970 levels into the low 20,000s.

At the same time, the industry has stepped up its efforts to deal with its retired veteran population. On Nov. 3, three days after the Breeders’ Cup riveted the sport with the star turns of such set-for-life performers as American Pharoah, Tepin, Liam’s Map, and Stopchargingmaria, it was announced by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance that 16 new organizations had been added to its list of accredited havens for horses whose productive days at the track had ended.

The 16 new entities increased to 56 the number of accredited aftercare organizations. They are spread out across 18 states and two Canadian provinces at 180 individual facilities, from large, interstate operations like CANTER and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation to the smaller-scale sanctuaries that offer these old soldiers a chance to live out their lives in dignity.

It’s not enough, but at least the idea of racehorse aftercare is becoming institutionalized. For decades, from the birth of the movement in the mid-1980s, Thoroughbred retirement has stumbled through a hand-to-mouth existence, relying on donations and charity events for funding and volunteers for operation. There are only so many angels to go around.

The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, led by Darley America president Jimmy Bell, has tapped into the broad-shouldered segments of the industry to create a substantial amount ($2.4 million in 2014) distributed among the accredited organizations. There still needs to be a percentage set aside from every dollar bet, though, for the Thoroughbred industry to claim that it truly takes care of its own. A mere 0.1 cents on every one of the $11.1 billion bet in 2014 would give racing’s veterans an $11 million annual aftercare war chest, which they generated through their sweat and blood.

I was reminded of the disconnect between racing’s celebrities and its soldiers recently on a visit to the Kentucky Horse Park, north of Lexington. There at the Hall of Champions I found Da Hoss, a two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Mile, nibbling wet grass in the middle of his generous paddock, and champion Funny Cide, a winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, grouchy and entertaining as ever.

They have it made. And when they go, they will be laid to rest along the Memorial Walk of Champions near Forego, Bold Forbes, and Kona Gold, and not far from the bronze figures adorning the grave markers of John Henry (“A Lasting Legend”), Alysheba (“America’s Horse”), and Cigar (“Incomparable, Invincible, Unbeatable”).

If Thoroughbred racing has a Mecca, this is it. The unsung soldiers of the sport deserve nothing less.