04/03/2009 12:00AM

Keeping horses off path to slaughter

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ARCADIA, Calif. - On Wednesday, at Santa Anita Park, a roundtable discussion regarding the fate of retired Thoroughbred racehorses will be hosted by the California Retirement Management Account, known as Carma. This comes at a perfect moment, since recent events indicate that the wolves are sniffing at the door, and it's a bad time to be a Thoroughbred without a job.

* The state legislatures of Montana and North Dakota have taken bold steps toward reviving the domestic horse slaughter industry. Their main selling point is a flag-waving, free-market approach that if horses are going to be slaughtered anyway, why not do it in the U.S. rather than let all that commerce stray to Canada or Mexico? California, being the largest producer of horses in the Western U.S., would be their most reliable supplier.

* To aid and abet the horse slaughter industry, the American Quarter Horse Association has established a lobbying effort, known as Q-Contact, that will be peddling the AQHA's ongoing opposition to federal anti-slaughter legislation. The AQHA, it should be noted, refers to horse slaughter as "horse processing."

* That is not the only perverse term deployed by the pro-slaughter interests in these harsh times. A reference to "unwanted horses" raises its head in countless, planted media reports that do not bother to trace these supposedly wandering herds of abandoned animals to the responsible parties, or even ask if there might be anyone who actually "wants" them.

* A one-man horse rescue operation in Northern California reports that buyers for the slaughter trade are operating openly, in what should be interpreted as a violation of state law. Once in awhile, he will get a call from the owner of a feed lot specializing as a slaughter-bound holding pen to come take Thoroughbreds off their hands before they are "harvested."

Harvested.

Carma got rolling last year on the wings of Madeline Auerbach, vice chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, and supporters in the racing community. Sanctioned by the California Horse Racing Board, Carma gets 0.3 percent of purse money for distribution to California Thoroughbred retirement and re-training facilities that have been inspected and certified.

In racing circles, Auerbach is better known as the woman behind Unusual Heat, California's leading stallion, who stands at Old English Rancho in the San Joaquin Valley. To understand the impact of Unusual Heat, it should be noted that he has been responsible for nearly 30 wins by his sons and daughters at the current Santa Anita meet alone.

"Most of them are competitive, whether they're stakes horses or claimers," Auerbach said. "You just need to figure out where they belong. They're slow to develop, most of them, but when you get them right they are true workhorses. If they were on a farm they'd be pulling the plow from sunup to sunset."

According to Auerbach, the point of the Carma roundtable is to gather together the operators of the major California retirement facilities and their supporters, and take a good, hard look to the future. Lucinda Mandella, who is organizing the roundtable, reports that among the participants will be representatives from racehorse adoption programs, the show horse world, therapeutic riding organizations, and even the university system, in the person of Dr. Jayme Noland, the chief veterinarian at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

(Mandella can be reached at the TOC office at Santa Anita for more information on the roundtable, which begins on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. in the Baldwin Terrace conference room.)

"What I'd like to focus on at this juncture is what do we do to stop the flow of horses to retirement farms, and get them off the welfare system," Auerbach said. "If they are not suitable for the breeding shed, how many are suitable for dressage, polo, barrel racing, hunter-jumper events?

"I hope to get the Thoroughbred community in touch with these other communities," Auerbach went on, "and develop a situation almost like a triage, so that when a horse comes off the track there are people to evaluate this horse, and send him in the right direction. That's where I hope Dr. Noland and her students can come in at San Luis Obispo, with a pilot program that will let horses be evaluated, rehabilitated, and get ready for a second life. Such a program could be a source where people could go to find such horses.

"The first stop for a Thoroughbred who can no longer race shouldn't necessarily be a retirement farm, even if it's to a life as a riding horse for children or a backyard horse," Auerbach added. "Except in extreme cases, there's always somewhere that a horse can go to complete someone else's life."

With more than 30,000 Thoroughbred foals still hitting the ground each year, and precious little institutional support from state governments or racing and breeding organizations, it would seem that Auerbach's quest could be described as spitting into a relentless wind.

"I've become very pragmatic," she said. "I cannot save the world, and I recognize that. My job with Carma, as I see it, is to protect and save as many horses as we can as a community. Right now there isn't enough land or funds to do it. But we sure as hell can make a difference, and that's what I think we're supposed to do."