'Missing' Horses: Where Lies Responsibility?
A growing network of horse rescue operations, anti-slaughter policies at racetracks, and other industry equine welfare initiatives have taken root in Thoroughbred racing, but keeping track of where horses go when they’re finished racing remains a serious challenge.
Volunteers do a lot of the work developing contacts at tracks and looking out for horses before they are shipped off the grounds, perhaps to local livestock auctions or kill pens. They said their efforts, however, can be stymied by weak regulation and penalty enforcement.
"We're just out there trying to help horsemen because we understand that racing is a business, and we understand that when a horse needs to leave the track, it needs to leave the track," said Ali Conrad of CANTER Mid Atlantic. "If they don't have an avenue by which to advertise or find the horse a new home, what do they do? They really get in a jam.
"What is most frustrating is that we have people that are willing to work at lots of tracks in this country, and we can't even get management to speak to us. You have to have a license to be on the backside, and we don't want to operate without the support of the track."
CANTER visits some tracks on at least a weekly basis. There are three to five leader volunteers per track per weekend, with 10-30 people assisting them periodically.
Through their network, the individuals can keep track of potential retirees. But once horses leave the stable area without proper documentation, they can be hard to find.
Case of the 'missing' horse
A case in point is the 6-year-old Distorted Humor gelding Contrary, who last raced at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in January.
Neil Parker, a central Pennsylvania Thoroughbred owner whose wife, Kathleen, trained Contrary as of July 2009, said he told he the owners last summer he would take the gelding when his racing career was over. Contrary was claimed by Wells last year and subsequently trained by Stephanie Beattie.
Parker said it turned out the horse wasn't sent to a riding school or to a farm in north central Pennsylvania, as he was told. As of early July, Contrary still hadn't been found, leading to speculation he ended up in a kill pen.
Beattie, one of the leading trainers at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course and president of the Pennsylvania Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said she has been unable to determine where the horse was shipped. She offered a $1,000 reward for information on Contrary.
Messages left for Beattie through the Pennsylvania HBPA weren't returned.
Contrary, a Kentucky-bred out of the Dixieland Band mare Randy Nance, made 38 starts with seven wins, seven seconds, and seven thirds for earnings of $126,392. He was last owned by Beattie, according to equineline.com.
"Saying you don't remember or don't know where retired racehorses go shouldn't be an excuse for where retired horses go," Neil Parker said. "Currently, that seems to be acceptable. How can a trainer with a lifetime record of nearly 30% winners who is impeccable at taking care of her horses not know where they are going when they are retired?"
Parker, who works for a central Pennsylvania television station and has been called a rabble rouser by some because of his outspoken manner, said the practice of "don't ask, don't tell" must end. He claimed policies and protocol--of the track and Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission--aren't followed, with the end result being missing horses and mounting distrust on the backstretch.
How racetrack policies work
Penn National and other tracks owned by PNGI have on the books an anti-slaughter policy designed to protect horses that can no longer race. Those involved in horse rescue and retirement applaud the policy and similar ones at other tracks but claim they have no teeth.
The PNGI policy states: "Any horsemen stabled at a Penn National Gaming Inc.--owned or--operated horse racing facility who knowingly, or without conducting proper due diligence, sells a horse for slaughter, directly or indirectly, will have his or her stalls revoked and may, in addition, be barred from all of our racing properties."
PNGI vice president of racing Chris McErlean said policy enforcement requires documentation and hard facts before any action can be taken.
"The impetus (for the policy) was our trying to put horsemen on notice that we certainly aren't advocates of that type of end demise for racehorses," McErlean said. "As far as implementation, you have to start where you have credible evidence of that occurring. I' not sure Internet blogs are credible. You do need to have some facts to start with."
The story of Contrary became antagonistic and accusatory fodder for blogs and chat rooms. On the flip side, such Internet commentary is used to seek out horses and find them homes. It's hard, however, to separate fact from fiction.
"If information is credible, and the facts support it, we will follow up," McErlean said. "It's a difficult thing, no doubt. All tracks are struggling with enforcement (of anti-slaughter policies)."
Rose Mary Williams, director of racing at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in West Virginia, said the track's anti-slaughter policy stemmed from reports of Thoroughbreds showing up at the Sugarcreek Livestock Auction in neighboring Ohio. Mountaineer works with CANTER to disseminate information on options for retired racehorses.
"There is a group of people out there actively pursuing this," Williams said. "They'll call me every once in a while. There were reports of a lot of horsemen sending horses to Sugarcreek. There are other (auctions) out there, but we haven't heard of horsemen here sending horses to those places."
Williams said CANTER "seems to have helped in educating horsemen there are other avenues for retiring horses." As for policy enforcement, Williams said: "If made aware of (horses being sent to slaughter), I can take away stalls. But ultimately, it's up to the horse owners."
Most racetracks are private property, so they can pull stalls. But the horses aren't their property, and that has raised questions as to how far they can legally go in enforcement.
A call for enforcement
Anne Russek, a Virginia horsewoman involved in Thoroughbred retirement, said enforcement shouldn't be difficult if protocol already in place is followed. She indicated numerous horses leave barn areas unchecked by security personnel.
"It all boils down to enforcement," Russek said. "I've been beating my head silly telling tracks they have the mechanism to enforce the policy. Ask the questions (at security gates). Who is the horse? Where is the horse going—the physical address? Where is the paperwork?
"This stuff isn't rocket science. The information all could be easily entered in a database."
There are other concerns, such as unchecked horses leaving tracks and possible spreading diseases, Russek said. She has contacted the United States Department of Agriculture and asked it to get involved because some horses cross state lines without Coggins papers.
"We have all this information at our fingertips and choose not to use it," Russek said. "Without fail it's nothing but lip service from the higher-ups. A lot has been done over the years, but my take on it is the racing industry has more addressed it from a public-relations aspect rather than figuring out how to solve the problem."
Russek credited Suffolk Downs and Sam Elliot, director of racing at the Massachusetts track, for taking action that led to the discovery of racehorses at a livestock auction in New Holland, Pa. In 2007, five trainers were banned from Suffolk--three were reinstated in 2009 after a review.
Suffolk officials, Russek said, followed the paper trail and found the horses. Suffolk now has standardized a bill of sale used in the stable area to avoid misunderstandings involving horse transactions; the document states horses can't be transported or caused to be transported to auctions or kill pens.
The track also has a retirement program that takes horses at the end of each meet.
Other options available
In the Bluegrass State, the Kentucky Equine Humane Center works with tracks and training centers to place horses. Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky a few years ago created a "surrender stall" in which horses can be placed with no questions asked.
Since July 2008, the KEHC has taken almost 70 horses from Turfway. Lori Neagle of the KEHC said the program is a success, in large part because it’s monitored and there's documentation.
"If (the horses) go from one hand to another, it becomes hard to enforce," she said.
At the time it adopted its anti-slaughter policy, PNGI said it encourages horsemen participating at PNGI facilities and industry-wide to support rescue and adoption efforts and to seek humane means of dealing with horses unable to continue racing. There has been talk of opening a retirement program in central Pennsylvania similar to those in place in other states.
Russek said racetracks need in-house programs operated by "racetrackers" as well as humane euthanasia programs for horses that can't be transitioned to other careers. "It really does need to be a program with some oversight," she said.
Said Conrad: “We walk the shedrows talking to trainers, letting them know that we're an option to help them retire their horse, sell their horse, or retire their horse before they too damaged to find a second career. We're just trying to educate people and let them know we're there as a resource."
The Unwanted Horse Coalition, which falls under the American Horse Council umbrella, is studying ways it can expand its reach as a clearinghouse for such information and, if its members agree to after careful review, could form a clearinghouse for equine welfare funding.
--Esther Marr and Tom LaMarra
(Originally posted on Bloodhorse.com)
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