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The race is over, but the road doesn't end
New York State boasts four Thoroughbred racetracks, year-round racing, and a Thoroughbred industry that employs tens of thousands of people. It's home to the nation's oldest racetrack and host to the Belmont Stakes. Thoroughbreds are an important part of the state's history, economy, and culture, and organizations on and off the track are working to ensure that New York's racehorses have humane retirement options.
Over the last five years there has been a huge increase in awareness of the challenges of Thoroughbred retirement, said Diana Pikulski, executive director of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, founded in 1982 and perhaps the best known retirement program in New York State.
This heightened awareness has led to the establishment of such facilities in New York as Akindale Thoroughbred Rescue and the Old Friends retirement facility and to financial commitments from tracks and horsemen to support horses whose racing careers have ended.
"People don't want to read about their horse ending up badly," Pikulski said, "or they just realize that they have a responsibility to keep their eye on their horses."
The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation offers several options for retired racehorses: adoption by private individuals, work at one of six correctional facilities with which the foundation has a relationship, or life on a farm.
Pikulski said that racetracks need to emphasize long-term responsibility to the horse and that the TRF has forged relationships with several track operators, including the New York Racing Association.
Last December, NYRA adopted a policy to revoke stalls permanently for owners or trainers at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga who are found to have directly or indirectly sold a horse for slaughter.
"Tracks have to say: 'If you race here, this is what's expected of you,' and that's what this policy does," Pikulski said.
Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack has also taken steps to protect horses. In 2006, the Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Adoption Program was founded by Dr. Margaret Ohlinger, the Finger Lakes track veterinarian; Phyllis Shetron, a Finger Lakes-based trainer; and horse owner Valerie Morrison. They worked with the track to create a program dedicated to the retraining and adoption of its retired racehorses. It bills itself as the first Thoroughbred adoption facility in the country run as a collaboration between racetrack management and horsemen.
While tracks can aid in the humane retirement of horses, primary responsibility still rests with owners. Pikulski acknowledges the challenges of keeping track of horses if they are sold or claimed, but says it's possible if the horses are racing.
"Even if the horse isn't yours anymore, contact the new owner or trainer and say, 'Tell me when this horse stops racing.' Sometimes the new trainers do, sometimes they don't. But I see a lot of people trying to keep track of their horses. Unfortunately, when the horse stops racing, it gets impossible."
Michael Repole, leading owner in wins at NYRA tracks in 2009, knows too well what Pikulski is talking about.
"I try to make sure that my horses are in a good home," he said, "but the biggest problem is finding the right home so that they don't end up at the slaughterhouse."
"Retired Thoroughbreds wouldn't be an issue if owners took care of their own,'' Repole continued. "It's simple: You own the horse, and whether he's been a great runner or not, you have a responsibility."
He learned the hard way that good intentions and responsible actions don't guarantee a horse a good home for life. Last summer, he got a call from Another Chance 4 Horses, a Pennsylvania rescue organization that had found a former horse of his, Kid Ziggy, in a kill pen. Repole had donated him to an organization for retired Thoroughbreds.
"After I gave him to this organization, I followed up and found out that he had become a riding horse,'' said Repole, who declined to name the organization because he believed that it acted honorably.
"I felt that I did the right thing as an owner, and four years later the call comes. I'm grateful to Another Chance for taking care of him." Repole reimbursed Another Chance for what it paid for Kid Ziggy at auction and donated money to support his upkeep. AC4H co-founder Christy Sheidy said that Kid Ziggy had recently been adopted "to a great home."
"It was a wake-up call," Repole said, and as a result, he's more selective about where his horses go. "We try to make sure that the organization has a 'lifetime contract,' " a policy that states that an adopter who can no longer support a horse returns the horse to the rescue or retirement organization.
Akindale Thoroughbred Rescue in Pawling, N.Y., is one such organization. Its adoption agreement stipulates that the adopted horse "may only be transferred back to the Akindale Rehabilitation and Land Conservation" and "may not be raced, bred, sold, used for commercial purposes, given away, assigned, or disposed of, nor have any interest in thereof transferred."
Akindale Thoroughbred Rescue was founded in 2006 by John Hettinger as an arm of Akindale's racing and breeding farm. It made news in 2008 when it became the retirement home of New York racing favorite Evening Attire.
Some horses rescued by Akindale remain on the farm. Others go to new adoptive homes. "Right now we've got about 140 rescue horses," Pfister said, "including one 35-year-old broodmare. Her owner recently died, and maybe we should have euthanized her, but the owner's husband had just buried his wife, and he wasn't ready to put down the horse. So we've got her."
Hettinger died in 2008, and the farm runs mostly on money that he left to sustain it, though Erin Pfister, who runs the farm's rescue division, acknowledged that Akindale is beginning to get donation money. "We're a young organization," she said. "It can take a while."
New to New York but well known in the racing industry is Old Friends, based near Lexington, Ky. Since 2003, it has been home to retired Thoroughbreds whose only job is to entertain visitors who come see them. The farm offers daily tours to the public.
Last December, Old Friends at Cabin Creek: the Bobby Frankel Division, welcomed the first retired Thoroughbred to its farm in Greenfield Center, N.Y., near Saratoga Springs. Currently, six horses make their home at Cabin Creek, including Thunder Rumble, winner of the 1992 Jim Dandy and Travers Stakes.
"We're fortunate that there are enough people and owners who think that what we're doing is a good idea that the money comes in," said Michael Blowen, president of Old Friends. "We sell shares in horses for $100. You could own a share of Will's Way or Williamstown. We've got five Eclipse Award winners" - on the farm in Kentucky - "and we promote them the same way they were promoted when they were racing."
In addition to the efforts of individual organizations, the racing industry is taking steps to fund Thoroughbred retirement. In 2009, the Jockey Club instituted a checkoff program through which breeders could contribute money for each foal they registered, with half of the donations going to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and half to Thoroughbred Charities of America, a group that supports retirement efforts. In the first year of the program, approximately $52,000 was contributed by breeders while the Jockey Club donated $200,000. The program was renewed for 2010, with the Jockey Club guaranteeing a second $200,000 donation.
Other racing organizations have made similar pledges. Last July, the New York Racing Association announced that it would donate $50,000 to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, with the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association contributing an additional $25,000. More than two dozen New York-based jockeys pledged $1 from each mount to the TRF through a voluntary checkoff program.
The New York horsemen's group, according to executive director Jim Gallagher, donated $10,000 to the Columbia-Greene Humane Society/SPCA, instrumental in the rescue of mistreated horses from owner Ernie Paragallo's farm last spring. The horsemen also work closely with the Exceller Fund, which provides Thoroughbreds with transitions to careers off the track. New York trainer Gary Contessa is the president of the Exceller Fund, named after the horse who defeated Affirmed and Seattle Slew in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. Exceller died in a European slaughterhouse in 1997.
Jeffrey Cannizzo, executive director of New York Thoroughbred Breeders, said that his organization supports financially a number of organizations, with primary contributions to the TRF and the Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Adoption Program. In addition, Cannizzo said that the breeders' group works with the Jockey Club to promote the checkoff program, although he says he has "no real sense" of how many New York breeders participate.
Blowen of Old Friends believes that promoting retirement efforts also promotes the sport. "Look at all the money given to lobbyists for slots machines, money that hasn't helped one horse," he said. "We promote the sport, and we want to change the priorities, to focus on what's best for the horses.
"If you do what's best for the animals, you do what's best for the sport."