Emptying The Ocean With A Teaspoon: The Challenges Of Thoroughbred Aftercare, Part 2

Jan 9, 2020 - 2:58 PM

This is the second article in a three-part series. Read Part 1 here.

There are many reasons to feel good about the current state of Thoroughbred retirement and rehoming. It seems groups like the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, Thoroughbred Incentive Program, Retired Racehorse Project and a host of adoption and rehoming organizations are everywhere. With so many horses happily prancing around show rings and lazily nibbling grass in the paddocks of pensioners, the aftercare problem in racing must be nearly solved by now, right?

Those on the front lines of rescue and rehoming efforts say we’re not even close—and we probably never will be.

For one thing, the scale of the problem is big. Bigger than most people probably realize.

Keeneland scenic
There’s lots of progress being made in Thoroughbred aftercare, but there’s still a long way to go. Coady Photography Photo

Research on Australian racing populations indicates that roughly 40 percent of the racing population leaves the track each year. The Jockey Club does not keep figures on the number or percentage of horses retiring each season. Last year alone, there were 46,144 starters in the United States; if Australia’s average is similar to America’s, 40 percent of 46,144 would have 18,458 horses leaving the track by the end of 2018.

Looking back at the last decade of starters, 2009 to 2018, 40 percent of starters leaving the track each year would result in a total of 217,722 horses retiring. Some portion of those leaving the track went to the breeding shed of course, and it’s hard to know how many. 

Then there are the horses who didn’t make it to the track to begin with. On average, according to figures from The Jockey Club, 72 percent of registered foals born between 2005 and 2014 actually made it to the races, meaning 28 percent did not. There are many factors which determine whether or not a Thoroughbred will race; some are taken out of training before their first start if responsible trainers determine they’re simply too slow to compete. Others may encounter injury (racing-related or not) or illness before they have the chance.

Depending on the horse’s connections and the reasons it never ran, this doesn’t always spell uncertainty for the horse. Many sport horse riders prefer horses with little or no racing background because they believe it reduces the potential for lurking injuries, and plenty of owners are now making retirement decisions early to allow their horses an easier time finding a new job. Breeders may take a well-pedigreed filly out of training and put her into their program. 

Still, there are an awful lot of non-starters that had to go somewhere. Assuming 28 percent of registered horses from the foal crop of 2016 never ran, that means this year’s 4-year-olds had 5,887 pasture mates that never made it to the races. For the past 10 foal crops, the 28 percent rate would mean roughly 72,297 horses were registered but never made it to the track.

Since the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance launched in 2012, 10,300 horses have been helped by accredited facilities. CANTER, which both networks horses on behalf of racing trainers and takes on a limited number of horses for retraining, has served 25,000 horses since its founding in 1998. Long-standing groups like New Vocations have also racked up some impressive numbers during their tenure, which predates the TAA; New Vocations has placed 6,000 horses since it was founded in the early 1990s, though that number includes both Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds.

The Jockey Club’s Thoroughbred Incentive Program (T.I.P.) has seen 41,500 OTTBs competing in its classes, so at least that many are in sport and pleasure riding homes.

Those in the non-profit aftercare world say the infrastructure to help OTTBs has grown enormously in the past decade; now, their problem is finding the funding.

Part of the TAA’s mission when it was founded in 2012 was not only to accredit aftercare charities but also to help fund them. In 2015, TAA distributed $2.4 million to 56 accredited charities. This year, the organization gave out $3.42 million. The number of accredited organizations has also increased in that time, however—there are now 74 accredited charities—so the amount available to each has remained relatively unchanged.

“Initially I think the battle for those who were concerned about this issue was to encourage or persuade other people within the industry that this was a make-or-break issue,” said TAA President John Phillips. “I think that’s essentially gone away. I think now the industry understands we have to fund it, and there’s no question about the necessity to address the issue; the question is how to keep that funding process fair to all components.”

Stallion owners are required to pay $25 to the TAA when they report a mare bred, and a breeder registering a foal has to pay another $25 at the time of registration. Auction houses can, and do, make voluntary contributions to the TAA. Consignors and purchasers at public auction have the option to contribute a percentage of a horse’s purchase price to the organization, and some tracks are charging per-start fees that go to the TAA.  A number of horsemen’s groups and trainers also choose to donate as private individuals. But Philips said he’d like to see those participation numbers get higher.

Keeneland photo
Consignors and purchasers at public auctions can opt to donate a percentage of a Thoroughbred’s purchase price to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. Keeneland Photo

Outside of TAA, California owners do fund aftercare in an automatic deduction, and New York also requires mandatory fees associated with starts and claim prices to go to aftercare. The California Retirement Management Account is an opt-out program, meaning owners can choose to opt out of giving .03 percent of purse money won to the organization.

The Wrong Type Of Horse

The other difficulty facing many aftercare groups now is also the type of horse they’re being asked to help. Thanks to marketing efforts over the past decade, there is now a viable marketplace for the most employable horse—sound, sane, and ready to begin training in something new. 

But horses that come with limits—soundness issues, poor conformation, behavioral issues or age challenges—are more difficult to employ. They require more time to find homes, have a narrower range of potential homes, and have less economic value. They also cost retraining and rehoming facilities more money.

“What we have seen is in 2010 we started taking on more horses that needed to be rehabilitated prior to us adopting them out,” said Anna Ford, New Vocations executive director. “We saw that trend when social media picked up because what was happening, and what’s continued to happen, is that there’s more ways for people who have a sound horse to retire to get them out to the public and get them a home. One thing that has not changed in the last 27 years is if we get a perfectly healthy, sound horse, we can have it a home in a week. What has changed is we’re getting hardly any of those horses anymore.”

Many retraining and rehoming facilities find themselves in a tough spot with weanlings or green-broke yearlings or 2-year-olds that never make it to the starting gate. Those horses require more expertise to give them the same skills of their older counterparts, who come off the racetrack already able to be ridden at a walk, trot, canter, load in a trailer, stand for baths and farrier visits, etc.

“Second Stride does get in yearlings and even on rare occasion weanlings or pregnant mares,” said Second Stride founder Kim Smith. “We are equipped to get them professionally foaled out, broke to halter, lead, saddle, and going. Interestingly enough these horses tend to stick around and take even longer than an injured OTTB to find a home. I would not have thought that. I assume it is because most sport disciplines don’t allow them to show until [they are] over 3 years old. So people are slow to commit, and/or feel they [don’t] have the skills to bring along a youngster.”

Ironically, Smith said, an unraced young horse with 30 days of basic training is probably a better match for the average amateur rider because they never learned to gallop.

“There is just often a stigma about young horses being green and difficult to ride, which is really not always true,” she said. “They are clean slates.”

The Outlet No One Wants To Think About

There is one place a horse always has economic value, even if he’s not all that employable—a slaughterhouse.

There isn’t data about how many Thoroughbreds may end up being exported to Canada or Mexico for slaughter. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does keep tabs on the number of horses being exported for the purpose of slaughter and records their ages and genders, but it doesn’t attempt to establish the breed of those horses.

USDA figures suggest the total number of horses exported for slaughter has decreased significantly in recent years. In 2012, the USDA showed 55,811 horses exported for slaughter to Canada and 125,518 to Mexico. By 2017, those numbers were 12,273 and 52,555 respectively.

Thoroughbreds primarily enter the slaughter pipeline one of two ways: They’re brought to a livestock auction frequented by slaughterhouse contractors looking to fill their trucks, or they may be sent “direct ship.” This means a horse’s owner sold the horse to the kill buyer privately with the condition it not be made available for resale or rescue anywhere—likely to shield the trainer from detection by tracks with anti-slaughter policies.

Then there are kill pen bail businesses, which may serve as supplemental income for owners of livestock auction houses or may be the primary business for individual horse traders. The owner of the horse posts pictures and video to social media, makes a plea for the horse’s rehoming, and sets a “bail price” that will release the horse from the sale or trader’s possession. Bail prices are often significantly higher than the per-pound prices offered by slaughter facilities in Mexico or Canada (which are usually in the range of $400 to $600), but social media users and rescues will crowd-source the fee anyway, and then find the horse a home afterward.

There is some debate about the likelihood of these bail businesses shipping a horse to slaughter since it will always fetch more via social media sale with very little cost. It’s also unclear how many of the horses featured on Facebook pages of bail businesses were sought out exclusively for that purpose and were never at risk of shipping to slaughter.

OTTB rescues have differing opinions as to how many of the horses exported for slaughter each year are Thoroughbreds. Some advocates who spoke with the Paulick Report said they believe fewer horses are entering the slaughter pipeline; others, who keep an eye on one or two nearby livestock auctions, said they see one or more Thoroughbreds each week, just like they did before aftercare became a hot topic.


A longer version of this story was originally published by the Paulick Report, an independent horse racing industry publication. It is the second in a three-part series about Thoroughbred aftercare. You can find an expanded version of this story here.

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