A decade ago, the word “aftercare” was not part of the horse racing industry’s vernacular when talking about Thoroughbreds leaving the track. There were a handful of nonprofits that had battled the tide of horses retiring from racing for years. The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation launched in 1983, New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program in 1992 and Thoroughbred Charities of America in 1990. The Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses (CANTER), a group that connects horses on the track to potential buyers, started in 1998. But those organizations’ elevator pitches often had to begin with an explanation of why they were necessary in the first place.
The conversation about off-track Thoroughbreds seems to have broadened in 2008 or 2009, and now “aftercare” is everywhere in racing.
Over the past 10 years, a variety of nonprofits and for-profit businesses have popped up to address the post-racing problem. Some are sanctuaries, focusing mostly on retired horses with no possibility of a second career. Others take in horses for retraining and adopt them out or sell them. Still other groups or individuals act as educators and connectors between horses on the track and off-track homes but don’t maintain a facility to take possession of horses themselves.
Even within the rehoming organizations, there are subtypes. Some groups work with large numbers, putting small adoption fees on horses to get them out the door to vetted adopters quickly. Others, including for-profit individuals, deal in smaller volume at higher prices, selecting only horses with solid physicals that can command larger adoption fees or sale prices.
How did we get here?
The journey from aftercare as an abstract concept to becoming omnipresent was, in the grand scheme of paradigm shifts, a quick one.
Susanna Thomas, executive director for the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center, has been working in aftercare since before the shift.
“When I started at the center, I was just helping out,” said Thomas. “It was October 2007, and slaughter had just become illegal in this country. While there was somewhat of an awareness of the issue, which had been brought to light by the TRF, by CANTER, by New Vocations, Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue—it really wasn’t on anybody’s radar.”
Then, Thomas said, several key things happened in quick succession. Social media expanded rapidly. People began using it not only to share vacation photos, but also to impact social and political change. It became easier to share photos of horses at auctions along the Canadian and Mexican borders, details about horses in neglect situations, and information about OTTBs looking for new homes. Suddenly, the market for off-track horses wasn’t just made up of people near an adoption facility’s base; it was national. So too, was the scale of OTTBs in need of help.
In 2008, the Great Recession hit nearly everyone in the wallet. People weren’t donating, and they weren’t adopting. If anything, more of them were looking to surrender their horses than ever before. The equestrian world was somewhat delayed in its recovery from the downturn—horses are luxury items, after all—and even as national economic indicators and unemployment numbers steadied, adoptions stalled. Thomas remembers the squeeze in her early days piloting the Secretariat Center, which at the time was a Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation facility.
“It really impacted everybody, especially the TRF because they were mostly a sanctuary,” said Thomas. “When people are not writing checks anymore, and you’re still feeding and taking care of 2,000 horses … it put untenable strain on them.”
At the same time, the racing industry was becoming more aware of its responsibilities (and public relations challenges) following a previously tepid attitude toward aftercare. Beginning in 2009, The Jockey Club and Thoroughbred Charities of America offered an optional check-off program to breeders registering new foals. The program gave the breeder the chance to donate a designated amount to aftercare via TCA, and The Jockey Club would match that amount.
As aftercare became higher profile, established organizations gained steam, all of them competing for fundraising dollars. Other, less-organized, less well-managed programs began popping up, too. Enter the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, launched in 2012 as an accreditation and fundraising body for aftercare organizations. Since its foundation, the TAA has given away $17.2 million to accredited groups, which have served 10,300 Thoroughbreds.
“The best thing that’s happened to aftercare since I started is the TAA,” said Michael Blowen, founder of Old Friends equine sanctuary in Georgetown, Kentucky. “You’re always afraid there’s going to be somebody that’s going to break the rules, and horses will end up in a bad situation. Their accreditation process is so difficult and time consuming. We went through an IRS audit, and that was nothing compared to what the TAA does. Now, I know if somebody sends a horse to a TAA-accredited facility, I know it’s going to be OK.”
The TAA also addressed the acute need for the racing industry to have a group to point to, showing its commitment to aftercare. The organization maintains a lengthy list of farms, sale companies, horsemen’s groups, wagering companies and others who have written checks or developed fundraising programs.
While the TAA was getting up and running, several horsemen realized the best way to ensure a horse has a home is to make sure it has value. There was a time when OTTBs were wildly popular in equestrian sports for their versatility, tenacity and athleticism. If there were a way to incentivize people to think about an OTTB for their next riding horse, the Thoroughbred could stop being a charity case and start being a commodity.
Steuart Pittman started the Retired Racehorse Training Project in 2010 as an educational and advocacy group for those interested in retraining OTTBs. By 2013, that had expanded into the Thoroughbred Makeover, a challenge program with a time limit for professionals to work with recent runners before showing off their handiwork in a public exhibition. Now, the Makeover is open to professionals and amateurs.
“Our mission, overarching, is to increase the value and demand for horses in the sport horse world, and one part of that is if they need to retire from racing, have an avenue for them to do so easily, safely and quickly to have more people wanting them,” said Jen Roytz, executive director of the Retired Racehorse Project. “We’re trying to market Thoroughbreds to equestrians so they hopefully choose a Thoroughbred over another breed of horse for their next show horse, lesson horse, trail horse, recreation horse. I think the needle’s moving. I’m very proud to say that we’re a part of that, but I think we’re only a part of that. There are so many people doing so much good work out there.”
There are also a number of incentives for people competing OTTBs beyond Thoroughbred Makeover. The Jockey Club’s Thoroughbred Incentive Program is the biggest, with more than 1,300 events across the country offering bonus prizes for TIP participants, including a year-end championship. TIP has also initiated non-performance awards for trail horses or those in unmounted vocations like therapy.
All this interest has made it easier to find homes for athletic, sane, sound horses. So much so that a number of professional sport horse trainers have begun dealing almost exclusively in OTTBs in their for-profit businesses.
Stephanie Calendrillo has been retraining and selling horses for most of her professional life and has participated in the past two editions of the Thoroughbred Makeover. From her Central Kentucky base, she’s seen prices for the right type of retiring race horse rise this time of year, when Makeover participants are out seeking horses for next year.
“The prices of horses, because of RRP, has tripled,” said Calendrillo. “There are [racetrack] trainers now who are trying to sell their horses for close to $5,000, where before all this it was $2,000. That was your average.”
That can make it difficult for professionals like Calendrillo to gain the same profit on OTTBs they used to, and some have had to raise their own prices to keep up. But while that may be unwelcome news to sport horse professionals, it means the right type of horse has many more options for life after the track than it did 10 years ago.
A snapshot of the Kentucky Horse Park in October is the realization of a vision come to life for many in the aftercare realm. On every horse path, in every ring, are OTTBs of all ages and body types. Horses approach the ring followed by a trail of coaches, friends and families of the riders. When they step on course to compete, announcers tout their racing history and pedigrees. Many of them will accept mints and pats from their breeders, racing owners, or former track grooms back at the barn. Everyone seems to be wearing t-shirts and hats exalting the Thoroughbred.
“A few times a day it hits me,” said Roytz. “I walk around so impressed by how good these horses look and how well they’re doing. And then it hits me — they’re all in their first year of retraining after racing. If these horses can accomplish all that in the first year, then how bright is their future?”
A longer version of this story was originally published by the Paulick Report, an independent horse racing industry publication. It is the first in a three-part series about Thoroughbred aftercare. You can find an expanded version of this story here.