07/27/2006 11:00PM

Last ride needn't be to an ugly end

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Earlier this week, the big picture in the world of American horses still being led to slaughter got a little fuzzy for the folks who profit from the practice. The piece of Congressional legislation known as HR 503 escaped two separate committees in which it had been held hostage, and now the supporters of the bill are hopeful that the full House of Representatives will get a crack at a vote by sometime in September. HR 503, sponsored by Rep. John Sweeney of New York, has the bipartisan support of 202 co-sponsors, leaving it just 15 shy of an outright majority before it even hits the floor.

If HR 503 passes, it would be a terrible blow to the two slaughterhouses in Texas and the one in Illinois that provide tasty holiday horse meat to their customers abroad, not to mention an economic inconvenience to the slaughterhouse employees, who will need to find work in an industry that is not quite so widely reviled by the American public.

Chris Heyde of the National Horse Protection Coalition, one of the main lobbying groups in support of anti-slaughter legislation, allowed himself a rare sigh of relief that the issue might finally be closer to resolution than ever before.

"Obviously, there's a frustration that slaughter hasn't been banned yet," Heyde said Friday from his Washington office. "But since I first approached Congress, back in 2001, I think there has been a real boom in horse rescues, and organizations that put out guidelines on how to run a sanctuary humanely. The Thoroughbred industry, for one, has really started to step up."

The lingering opposition to HR 503 - primarily from the American Quarter Horse Association, the American Veterinary Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners - is holding to the line that without the option of slaughter, each year tens of thousands of horses would be neglected, abandoned, and otherwise abused.

This is palpable baloney, or worse. There are a growing number of resources to place horses owned by people who no longer want to bear the responsibility. And anyway, the process of sales and transport of slaughter-bound horses is already rife with cruelty, with examples of abuse available on an almost daily basis.

In Friday's Texarkana Gazette, for instance, there is a report of an incident at a local gas station involving a tractor-trailer with a flat tire and a cargo made up of horses who were showing signs of serious injuries. Animal control officers got into the act, and were told the horses were bound for a Fort Worth, Texas, slaughterhouse.

According to a spokesman for the Texarkana Police Department, officers "initially wrote citations for animal abuse but changed their minds when the United States Department of Agriculture representative said it was possible the horses could have sustained the injuries as a result of the blowout or from fighting among themselves. Basically, they said it looked bad, but these injuries happen to horses all the time."

All the time.

At about the same time that load of doomed horses was sent on its grim way to Fort Worth, a 5-year-old Thoroughbred stallion by the name of King De was getting a reprieve from a similar fate.

After a career of 22 starts at Suffolk Downs (one win, $18,336 in earnings) that ended on July 11 with two bowed tendons, King De was sold last weekend for $160, supposedly as a stallion prospect. Forty-eight hours later he was in the killer pens at New Holland, Pa., where the representatives of Canadian slaughterers regularly shop.

King De got lucky, though. At 17 hands and a striking roan, he stood out in the sorry crowd. Beverly Strauss of the Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Rescue spotted King De, and notified Diana Rigoletto of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. Rigoletto spent two days trying to track King De's journey to such a hellish end, and then was told he had been bought for $260 and packed off to Canada with the rest of the load.

"It was heartbreaking, but it happens a lot," she said. "These are not unwanted horses, like the pro-slaughter people contend. Often these are horses owned by people who have been lied to - told they were being bought as riding horses, or potential show horses - when they are really on their way to the slaughterhouses."

The story of King De has a rare twist. As it turned out, he was left behind when the slaughter truck departed New Holland for Canada. Rigoletto found out and with the help of a growing network of support, located the person who had adopted King De's half-sister. As a result, King De will soon have a home at a Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation facility in New Jersey.

"Everybody who has seen him this week has said he is the nicest, kindest horse - hardly a horse who would go unwanted if given the chance," Rigoletto said. "But look what had to happen for him to be saved. The truck was full. There was no room for King De. He was bought late, and a big colt, and they couldn't stuff him in there with the others. That makes him just about the luckiest horse alive."

Hopefully, if Congress leads the way, he will soon have a lot more company.