07/23/2008 12:00AM

Time for a raised conscience

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DEL MAR, Calif. - There is something in the air, a whiff, a hint of the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way the Thoroughbred racing industry addresses the issue of caring for its athletes when their usefulness as cogs in the parimutuel machine has ended.

In New York, last February, the New York State Task Force on Retired Race Horses was revived to pursue its legislated mandate. The 12-member task force is led by the state's Racing and Wagering Board chairman, Daniel Hogan, and its agriculture commissioner, Patrick Hooker.

"These are animals that have served the sport and our economy for years, and we have a responsibility to look for second careers for these animals," Hogan said. "This task force will explore the transition of these horses from the track to other disciplines."

In New Jersey, Monmouth Park officials have announced that they are providing an onsite office presence for ReRun, one of the nation's most successful Thoroughbred retirement and rehabilitation organizations

"This is really win-win for everyone involved," said Bill Knauf, assistant general manager of Monmouth Park. "Monmouth Park has always been supportive of programs such as ReRun, and we look forward to working together in the future, offering assistance and helping them achieve their goals and objectives."

And in California, the California Retirement Management Account has been officially launched, created by legislation earmarking 0.3 percent of purse money for distribution to approved Thoroughbred retirement programs in the state. (The percentage would represent, for example, $150 of a $50,000 purse.)

The program, developed by the Thoroughbred Owners of California and approved by the California Horse Racing Board, provides an "opt-out" clause of the tax-deductible percentage, for those owners who feel the 0.3 percent can best be spent elsewhere.

"If owners don't take on this task, who will?" said the vice-chair of the owners' group, Madeline Auerbach.

Who indeed. As it stands, the challenge of providing facilities for the retirement, physical rehabilitation, and possible retraining for second careers of former racehorses has been answered with a patchwork array of private groups and individuals. Large and small - from the hundreds of horses living at Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation facilities to a handful of lucky retirees in peaceful backyard paddocks - they are funded only through personal sacrifice and charitable donations, which means they exist from hand to mouth, month to month, always dependent upon the whims of the economy and the kindness of strangers.

Thoroughbred Charities of America, an affiliate of the Kentucky-based Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, lists more than 100 different nonprofit equine rescue and rehabilitation groups that have received charitable grants, and more seem to be cropping up all the time.

This is a good thing, of course. But at the same time, the reality of slaughter continues to threaten racehorses who have reached the end of the line, ever looming as a public relations nightmare for the industry and as an unspeakable horror for the animals, so terribly betrayed. In the current climate, even the best of intentions to find a good home for an ex-racehorse can backfire, as reported this week in The Oklahoman newspaper.

According to a story filed by staff writer David Rizzo, Oklahoma breeder Patti Deiter had no reason to doubt that her homebred 3-year-old Thoroughbred Tricky Jazz (0 for 3, $210 in earnings) would have anything but a good life after being donated to the Boys Ranch Town in Edmund, Okla., for use as a part of a working herd. Boys Ranch Town is associated with the Oklahoma Baptist Homes for Children.

Less than a week after she said goodbye to Tricky Jazz, Deiter got wind from a representative of the newly formed Oklahoma Thoroughbred Retirement Program that there was a chance her former horse would be dispatched to a local auction ring and bound for likely slaughter in Canada or Mexico. Alarmed, Deiter contacted Boys Ranch Town and was informed that Tricky Jazz had already been sold.

The good news is that Deiter was able to track down Tricky Jazz and buy him back. The bad news is that she donated another horse to Boys Ranch Town last fall - an unraced son of Our Emblem - and was told that he was eventually sold at a livestock auction.

"We do not sell to slaughterhouses," a representative of Boys Ranch Town told the paper. "We sell to individuals, and we sell at public auctions."

Well of course they don't, because there are no longer any slaughterhouses operating in the United States. There are still plenty of middlemen combing livestock options for horsemeat, though, and anyone who thinks otherwise is living in serious denial.

The larger lesson of the Oklahoma story points to a need for institutional involvement in the challenge to provide information, access and funding for retirement and rehabilitation facilities. The private, charitable sector can go only so far. What is happening with the New York task force, the California Retirement Management Account in California, and ReRun in New Jersey - as well as the Green Pastures Program established by Churchill Downs Inc. and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation - represents hopeful steps in the right direction.

But there is still a long way to go. Every state racing government and every racing association makes money off horses, which means they have an obligation to guarantee their equine athletes an honorable retirement after their services are no longer required. In Saturday's column, two leading racetrack executives will step up with their solutions to the ongoing challenge.