Depending on the day, working in Thoroughbred aftercare can feel especially impactful or incredibly futile. On one hand, horse racing has accomplished so much in a short amount of time in its quest to take care of Thoroughbreds leaving the track. On the other, there’s still a long way to go.
In the face of funding shortages; the complex legal, logistical and ethical issues of the horse slaughter pipeline; and a mass influx of horses in need, what can the industry do better?
The Intangible Efforts
John Phillips, president of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, said the first step is to define the problem. For one thing, we need better data to understand how many Thoroughbreds are in need, including the number in the slaughter pipeline.
“I think historically this is one of the areas that has provided reluctance,” he said. “In a sense you almost wanted to bury your head in the sand and say, ‘Gee, maybe we really don’t want to ask that question.’ ”
But no matter how difficult the answer may be, Phillips said it’s critical to fixing the problem.
For Jen Roytz, executive director of the Retired Racehorse Project, the language used to describe the aftercare effort in racing is just as important as the logistical approach to the problem.
“You hear a lot of people term aftercare in general as ‘rescue,’ and we’re doing our industry a disservice by using that kind of terminology at this point,” said Roytz. “We know how well cared-for these horses are, from the moment they’re planned as a mating on paper. So using the term ‘rescue’ really sets us back, especially in the eyes of the layperson who is not involved intimately with the Thoroughbred industry and only has a very peripheral understanding of it. To hear that a horse has to be ‘rescued’ from our industry is not a good look for us.”
The Tangible Solutions
Those working on the front lines of aftercare say the greatest need continues to be increased funding. Every entity or individual, profit or non-profit, interviewed for this series acknowledged a waitlist for spaces in their OTTB program, whether for retraining and adoption or sanctuary. Several expressed frustration that many funding efforts are voluntary, not mandatory.
“They all can’t go into a second career,” said Marlene Murray, president and co-founder of the Retirement Assistance and Care for Equines Fund. “There are some horses who sustain injuries that are going to limit their ability to do that. Of course, there are horses who can be companion animals, but those types of homes do not come up very often. The expense of the care of those horses is falling on organizations like ours. We’re carrying the majority of expenses for those horses, which is not right.”
The other way to lighten the financial burden on non-profit aftercare groups is to retire horses earlier. Anna Ford, program director for New Vocations, said she encounters a lack of understanding by racing connections about the requirements for a horse to have a successful second career. Sometimes this translates to a misunderstanding about the horse’s value, and sometimes trainers or veterinarians believe a riding stable will be happy to accept a horse regardless of its lingering issues.
“I think there is an unrealistic expectation that a horse that can’t race will always be fine as a riding horse,” Ford said. “Equestrians, whether they’re trail riding or competing in grand prix jumping, they all want a sound horse. They don’t want a horse with arthritis and chronic issues.
“In all honesty when that vet is looking at that horse, a lot of those vets are not seeing what those injuries will look like eight months later,” she added. “So they don’t really even know how quickly arthritis can form, how things do mend and how things don’t mend. All they’re seeing are the ones that are racing and maintaining. To say that horse will be fine ‘as a riding horse,’ we see plenty that then aren’t. It’s not that the vet is intentionally lying, it’s that they really don’t know what those things look like after some time.”
Models That Are Already Working
One potential solution to many problems—education, intervention and aiding earlier retirements—seems to be on-track liaisons. Beyond The Wire in Maryland, Turning For Home at Parx (Pennsylvania), New Start at Penn National (Pennsylvania), Final Furlong at Assiniboia Downs (Manitoba), Second Call in New Jersey and CARMA in California have all been designed to position one or more aftercare experts on backstretches, helping connect trainers with accredited aftercare facilities or trusted groups or individuals, fielding questions about retirement and retraining, or helping those trainers list horses for sale. CANTER does the same, focusing primarily on selling horses to private individuals and occasionally providing rehabilitation and adoption at a CANTER facility.
“Most of what I do is have conversations with trainers to try to find out what their horses’ issues are, if any, and try to find the best non-profit for them or direct them to CANTER for listings if the horse is totally sound,” said Rachel Masen, CARMA aftercare liaison at Golden Gate Fields (California).
Masen gathers photos and appropriate paperwork to help racing connections get their horses placed in the right program. CARMA operates as a funding arm for California non-profits and also supports some horses coming off the track needing rehabilitation time before they’re ready for adoption. Masen also handles intake for CARMA’s Placement Program for Northern California OTTBs.
“I think it’s extremely helpful for people to have somebody to call, and not have to go call 20 non-profits and get shot down every time because they don’t know how to go about getting what they need,” said Masen. “Is that model going to work at every track? I don’t know. I don’t know if the community is the same everywhere, if the trainers are as willing to make changes. Golden Gate is a smaller track but a progressive one. They want the best for the horses.”
In Manitoba, Final Furlong Canada president April Keedian has a similar role, but she is primarily working to match Thoroughbreds with private riding homes. This year, Keedian said the demand for OTTBs at Winnipeg’s Assiniboia Downs exceeded the supply for the first time since she launched the program a decade ago.
“We’ve been growing by leaps and bounds,” said Keedian. “It’s almost difficult to keep up with all the work, but that’s good.”
Final Furlong held a paddock sale toward the end of the meet at Assiniboia for the first time this year. Trainers paraded available horses in the paddock, and exercise riders rode some of them through for potential buyers. The track’s announcer donated his time to read provided notes about each horse, and a veterinarian was on hand to do pre-purchase examinations for interested buyers. Keedian worked with trainers to ensure horses would be priced above meat price.
“On the backside, it was amazing,” said Keedian. “All the people who should have been going home early and having some time off stuck around and were ponying horses for us and bringing them up to the paddock. Pretty much every horse but one, who was a more difficult sell, they were all sold.”
Keedian said the backstretch community is grateful to have a viable alternative to calling a meat buyer.
“Most of our trainers, they don’t want them going there,” she said. “There’s been a real shift in attitude on that. Not only do most of them care about the horses and want them to go to a home that will use them and look after them, but nowadays they also realize it’s not good for the public perception.”
Final Furlong networks about 100 horses each year, some to hunter/jumpers and eventers but lots heading for pleasure and trail riding homes. In April, the group will host its first OTTB show, designed as an expo to show horses in various stages of retraining/second careers.
And that’s the other piece of the puzzle that’s working—those private individuals who want to buy OTTBs above meat price, put some time in, and sell them for more than they paid. As aftercare nonprofits have grown, so has the number of equestrians operating on a for-profit basis.
“Those same people may get horses from a nonprofit entity,” said Roytz. “We’ve seen a lot of that happening—people will adopt a horse for the [Thoroughbred] Makeover and sell it a year or two later. That’s still accomplishing the goal and supporting nonprofit work. I think that’s something a lot of people miss.”
The average Thoroughbred touches a lot of people from its conception to its retirement from racing. Every one of them can do something to positively impact that horse’s future.
Those in the world of nonprofit and for-profit Thoroughbred aftercare will tell you the solution, in principle, is simple: Put the horse first, even when it’s not convenient for you. Send the donation, have the aftercare plan, retire the horse early, change your organization’s policies to keep the horse’s future a bright one.
A longer version of this story was originally published by the Paulick Report, an independent horse racing industry publication. It is the conclusion of a three-part series about Thoroughbred aftercare. You can find an expanded version of this story here.