03/31/2011 3:26PM

Questioning the NTRA's aftercare standards

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This fall at Turfway Park in Kentucky, owners will pay a $1 per-start fee, matched by the track, as part of a new program to provide funding for the care of retired racehorses. In California and Florida, one-third of 1 percent of the purses at most of the states' tracks are being diverted to retirement efforts, supplemented by donations from track operators. In Illinois, a partnership between horsemen and the two Chicago-area tracks launched last year seeks to identify at-risk horses for rehabilitation and adoption at one of three facilities funded by the racing industry.

The programs are part of a patchwork of efforts that have sprouted in racing jurisdictions across the country over the last three years, coincident with the establishment of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Safety and Integrity Alliance in 2008. The alliance, which evaluates tracks for accreditation on a voluntary basis, includes in its code of standards a requirement that accredited tracks commit to so-called aftercare efforts, a segment of the industry that has come under renewed scrutiny. Earlier this month, a New York Times article reported allegations that one of the industry's largest aftercare organizations, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, had failed to provide an adequate amount of funding to foster farms that cared for some of its horses.

To supporters of the alliance, the aftercare requirement has played a critical role in the establishment of new programs that seek to raise funds for retired racehorses. With the requirement, supporters say, the alliance has applied pressure on tracks to adopt more ambitious aftercare programs while aiding in the dissemination of information about the efforts of its accredited tracks.

But despite the recent launches and augmentations of the programs at accredited tracks, critics contend the NTRA's aftercare requirement is nebulous, allowing tracks to become accredited with half-efforts and public-relations programs that shield tracks from the responsibility to raise meaningful funds.

Gail Vacca, who runs a rehabilitation facility in Illinois that receives funding from the state's new program, has alleged that the alliance accredited tracks that did not have adequate aftercare programs in place when they were reviewed for accreditation. Vacca pointed specifically to Churchill Downs, the first track to receive accreditation by the alliance, in early 2009, and to Churchill's Illinois track, Arlington Park.

"We really thought that the horses were finally going to get some help, and here's the first track that gets accredited, and they were doing nothing," Vacca said. "So the whole program was immediately discredited."

Churchill Downs and alliance officials vigorously dispute Vacca's contentions, claiming that Churchill's "Green Pastures" fund-raising and public-awareness program, launched in 2002, qualified the company's tracks for accreditation. The program has raised $270,000 for aftercare programs in the last 10 years, and Churchill has also raised an additional $244,000 through fund-raising events held in 2002 and 2004, according to Churchill officials.

Criticism of the alliance's standard for aftercare program centers on the language of the code. The code of standards does not require a specific monetary obligation to welfare organizations, but instead requires its members to "affiliate with recognized placement/adoption program(s)" and "participate in and facilitate a funding strategy."

Mike Ziegler, the alliance's executive director, acknowledged the requirement is fuzzy. However, the alliance did not want to adopt a specific requirement that would apply to all tracks because of the myriad ways in which tracks differ from one another, whether because of financial circumstances or pre-existing relationships with welfare organizations, and because the alliance did not want to punish tracks that could not reach an agreement with horsemen's groups on broad-based funding, he said.

"You can't do this one-size-fits-all," Ziegler said. "If a track can't get horsemen to participate they would never qualify for accreditation."

Ziegler also said the code in place in 2009 did not require tracks to provide direct funding to an aftercare organization but was limited to requiring an affiliation to aftercare organizations. Arlington Park qualified for full accreditation that year because its parent company made contributions through the Green Pastures program. The code was updated last year to include the direct fund-raising requirement.

The alliance's code prompted Turfway to start negotiations with Kentucky horsemen on a mutual fund-raising system to pay for aftercare, said Bob Elliston, the president of Turfway Park and the chairman of the NTRA. At the time the track was accredited, in the fall of 2009, Turfway was paying for the maintenance of a "surrender stall," which allows horsemen to drop off an unwanted horse with no questions asked, so that the horse can be directed to a retirement or adoption organization.

The surrender stall "met the standard" under the alliance's code, Elliston said, "but as we evaluated the program we saw some additional best practices in place at other accredited tracks, and we decided we wanted to put in place something that broadened the base so that we could have a steady revenue source."

But it remains difficult to ascertain whether the alliance is having a direct impact on aftercare efforts, or whether its existence merely dovetails with momentum that began building over the last three years under the industry's renewed focus on aftercare. In California and Florida, for example, agreements to divert purse funds to aftercare programs existed before tracks in the state began receiving accreditation.

Phil Combest, a member of the advisory board for the Florida Thoroughbred Retirement and Adoptive Care Program, said the launch of the program in April 2009 was not related to the alliance's efforts but rather through the recognition that the local industry had to provide a consistent source of funding for aftercare programs. Under the agreement, horsemen provide one-third of 1 percent of purses to the program, and Calder Race Course - also owned by Churchill Downs - and Gulfstream Park kick in $25,000 each year while also hosting charitable events.

In Illinois, Vacca also contended the alliance did not play a part in the formation in 2010 of the aftercare program requiring contributions from horsemen and tracks. Still, Arlington Park and Hawthorne Race Course had not provided direct funding until the alliance was launched. Arlington has been accredited, and Hawthorne has not.

The surfeit of rehabilitation organizations that receive funding through the programs has also been criticized. Most of the programs direct their funds to a multitude of retirement and adoption facilities. Critics contend it might be far more efficient - and far better for the horses - to concentrate the funding on only a handful of organizations.

Stacie Clark, who runs the retirement program for Frank Stronach's Adena Springs operation, said aftercare efforts would be better served by an industry-wide program that received a standard percentage of all purse funds and track revenues, and she said the alliance could be a vehicle for the adoption of such a program. But she also said the industry had ignored the problem for so long that the current efforts were operating in "uncharted water" and that the efforts were at least a first step.

Ziegler said the alliance's efforts to get the industry to focus on the aftercare of its horses are preliminary. A stronger standard may be down the road, he said.

"You have to start at a level where you can get everyone in," Ziegler said. "If not, you're not going to get anywhere. The most important thing is that we are making progress, and if the alliance has anything to do with that, then great. If not, things are still getting done. I don't care who gets the credit, as long as good things are happening."