03/18/2011 3:30PM

Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation under fire after allegations of neglect

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LEXINGTON, Ky. − The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the country’s largest racehorse retirement program, was under fire Friday after allegations in a New York Times article that horses at a number of TRF satellite facilities had been neglected and even starved as the TRF fell behind in paying caretakers.

The allegations were disputed by Tom Ludt, the TRF chairman, who said Friday that the article mischaracterized the findings of a report that examined the horses whose care the TRF was responsible for. The article, which appeared in the Friday print edition of the Times, focused on conditions veterinarian Dr. Stacey Huntington contended she found at TRF facilities including Oklahoma, Kentucky, and South Carolina, among others. The foundation cares for more than 1,200 retired racehorses at 30 facilities around the country.

Last December, the TRF’s largest contributor, the estate of Virginia horseman Paul Mellon, asked Huntington to conduct a sweeping examination of the TRF’s entire herd, an inspection the TRF fully supported, according to Ludt and TRF president George Grayson. The Mellon estate provided a $5 million endowment to the TRF in 2001.

The TRF supported the herd examination, Ludt said, but contended that its findings were largely mischaracterized by the Times.

“Statements were mischaracterized, and we are disappointed that Joe Drape chose not to discuss this herd evaluation situation with all parties involved,” Ludt said, referring to the author of the article.

Among other individuals familiar with the evaluations, Ludt said, was Dr. T. J. Loafman, who was on site to oversee TRF-sponsored horses’ removal in February from 4-H Farm in Oklahoma.

According to the Times, horses at the 4-H Farm provided “the most dramatic instance of neglect discovered so far,” with 47 horses “in such poor condition that Dr. Huntington filed a report with the Okmulgee County sheriff’s office.” Three of the horses were considered to be starving, the Times reported.

Ludt said Friday that one of those horses was a 24-year-old gelding with no teeth, and he pointed out that many of the horses in the TRF’s care are older horses.

“You’re dealing with an aging herd that’s being maintained for the rest of their lives, and I think there’s subjectivity about the quality of care or condition of the horses,” Ludt said. “It’s a very delicate subject. I’m not an expert, and we have third-party vets going out there, and we get differences of opinion.”

Drape countered during a Friday teleconference that a Feb. 23 e-mail in his possession from Loafman characterized the three horses as “starving.”

Grayson noted that documents Loafman submitted to TRF did not make such a description, and read from a document he said was from Loafman, which described several horses as “thin” but bright-eyed and in good health.

Ludt said the TRF board had not yet seen reports related to a Kentucky farm, which the Times said last week had 34 horses in “poor” or “emaciated” condition.

“We have had financial pressures put on us due to the economy and lack of industry support, which has caused pressure on our satellite farms,” Ludt said. “We have continually worked with our farms and have had great support from them.”

Ludt acknowledged the TRF has been behind on payments to some of its satellite farms.

“We’re current through the end of the year, and we’re not proud that we haven’t been able to keep these farms current, because it is a financial strain on them,” he said. “But the communication continues to be that they’re doing what’s in the best interest of the horses, which is most important to us.”

Grayson said in a teleconference that many people believe the TRF is wealthy because of the Mellon estate endowment, now worth about $7 million.

“There’s a misconception that we can freely access the whole endowment, and that’s not the case,” he said. “The terms of the endowment specify that the TRF is entitled to expend annually an amount not to exceed 5 percent of the market value. Those funds are used solely for the care and maintenance of the horses.”

The TRF’s stated mission is to protect Thoroughbreds who are no longer able to race from “possible neglect, abuse, and slaughter.” Its total herd has risen from about 300 horses to more than 1,200. Although the TRF disputes some key elements of the Times story, Ludt said, in some ways the story has done them one favor.

“We’ve gotten a lot of money donated today, and that’s a positive thing,” he said.