On Thanksgiving Day, while the turkey roasted and my family gathered, my significant other and I huddled on the couch with shoulders touching and a tiny phone in front of us.
We screamed at the screen and smacked our thighs as a plain bay swapped leads and surged to the front of the field. When he streaked past the finish line with his head at another horse’s saddle cloth we smiled and embraced. It was the first time that “our” boy had placed in a race. It was the first time he’d shown any true effort, and although it was only a $5,000 claimer, “our” boy finally showed some promise.
I put quotes around “our” because we have never actually owned this horse; but as is the life of a farm manager, we became immensely attached to the overgrown heathen from birth. In fact, Luke no longer even managed the farm that bred him, and we haven’t seen him since he sold as a beautiful yearling at the 2015 Keeneland September Sale for $150,000.
But he is ours. And we are his. And every time he changes hands I reach out to the new connections. I send the same cliche message that I always have, complimenting them on any success they have experienced with the horse, and then proposing that when the horse is ready for retirement or a second career they can reach out to us, no questions asked.
I have sent this message out countless times, for countless horses, and countless farms. I have done it for Chesapeake breds, and Hinkle breds—farms which I personally worked for. I have done it for foals born on Don Alberto, Alastar, and Mt. Brilliant—farms which I have no personal connection to besides through my boyfriend Luke and his managerial position. We are tightly connected to the breeders, and yet, we usually do it without any real affiliation to them.
About 10% of the time the trainer or owner will respond. Only twice have I actually secured the horse. Often we have resorted to offering money, or even claiming the horse ourselves. But many times the horses disappear and we are left bereft and confused, wondering what we could have done differently. My response has always been to message a little bit more often, call a bit louder, try a bit harder.
I believe there is a fine line between communicating with the current owners and trainers, and harassment. And it is unfair to always equate a horse’s competition level with level of care. I have seen horses who never won a race in their career come home looking like a shiny show pony. I have also seen horses retire after winning graded stakes races who deteriorate rapidly. I have seen horses who need years of rehabilitation, and horses who can head to the show grounds mere weeks from their last race.
There is no tried or true equation to the madness, and there will never be a standard with which to make assumptions on the thoroughbred breeding and race industry. Yet, time and time again, I hear this sentiment about the thoroughbred industry: The breeder is responsible for the entirety the horse’s life.
I can’t begin to tell you how much I disagree with that statement.
Now, this is not because I do not think breeders shouldn’t care, or that they shouldn’t give a thought about the horse’s entire life as they select matings, or produce these foals. But I believe that the responsibility of a horse’s care, livelihood, safety and welfare rests foremost with the owner. The one name or group on the sales contract. The one who is currently paying the bills and securing the care.
By saying that it’s the breeder’s responsibility for the remainder of a horse’s life, we are not only enabling the current owner to be irresponsible, but we are also running the breeder through an impossible gauntlet. One where they are spending their time picking up the pieces of someone else’s mess.
I have blogged time and time again of the current state of affairs in this industry and just how difficult it is to track a horse. And this is coming from someone who attempts to track from the moment in which the horse leaves my care. I have watched horses trade hands a dozen times, and demonstrated just how difficult it is to secure that horse back into your care without spending thousands of dollars.
I’ve let you follow my journeys with horses like Marilyn’s Guy, who was only retired once he was injured after we begged and pleaded for his retirement for years. I have let you in on the details of Called to Serve, whose prior race owners took it upon themselves to claim the 6-year-old gelding for $5,000 just to secure a safe and sound retirement.
But what I haven’t chronicled are the countless others I have watched fall through the cracks, through no fault of the breeders. The horses that we have purchased for $2,500, only to find out after the injections wore off the horse was unable to even withstand turn out. The horses I have contacted owners on behalf of only to find out they had been purchased privately. The horses we have found at auction 10, 15, even 20 after they last walked off of our four-planked fence line.
This is not to say that “we”—and by “we” I mean the breeder, their farm staff and team—have not tried. Many farms spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on aftercare. Prominent breeders like Stonestreet, Adena Springs and Darley, which the naysayers often lament for breeding such a large crop, are actually following their horses and intervening when necessary. These farms are then either rehoming the horses themselves, or donating massive grants to organizations like New Vocations, Second Stride, and ReRun. Some breeders, like Stone Farm and Hinkle Farm, place a note on the Jockey Club paper of all their foals with a contact number to call if the horse is ever in need of a safe landing.
— One Last Race (@OneLastRace) May 27, 2017
But they can only secure aftercare for the horses whose connections are cooperative. Owners who do not desire that “one last race”. They can only help the owners who will accept the help.
On most breeding farms in Central Kentucky you will find a field full of geldings who could not be brought home in time and re-homed through the adoption agencies or their friends. A field full of large ankles and screws. A field full of horses who ran that one last race…or twenty.
So no, I do not think that the responsibility lies on the breeders’ shoulders. The breeders who are already doing their part to fix the problem. The breeders that have cut the foal crop down to almost 50% of what it was only a decade ago. The breeders who pledge large amounts of money to aftercare.
Instead, hold your owners accountable. Hold trainers accountable. Hold racetracks accountable.
Enforce the anti-slaughter policies. Enforce their drug restraints. Enforce the vetting that happens before a race to screen for injured or obviously neglected horses from running. Employ legit penalties that are more than a smack on the wrist.
Educate owners and trainers on their options. Show them the CANTER website and inform them of competitions such as the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover. Increase the number of “End of the Meet Showcase Days” where trainers can highlight their horses who are ready for retirement in front of willing equestrians.
At the end of the day, a sound horse is a safer horse. A sound horse has a 90% chance of finding a second home – a second career. Breeders have to prove their horses are sound before they are purchased at industry auctions. They leave our farms able and ready, but they do not always leave the track in the same fashion.
Encourage your owners, trainers, racetracks, and anyone affiliated with the sport to support the One Last Race campaign. Retire the horses before they need retirement. Let them come off the track fresh faced and ready to jump a jump, run a barrel or play a chukker.
Congrats to HEART TO HEART for winning the Canadian Turf. Thank you for racing w/ us to help Thoroughbred aftercare. pic.twitter.com/xWyxd9QvBG
— One Last Race (@OneLastRace) March 4, 2017
That is what needs to change. Our sport can always improve, but let’s target and attack the pieces that are missing, not the parts of the picture which are already being painted. A beautiful piece of artwork exists if we all work together—the breeders, buyers, owners, trainers and authorities. Now we just need to find the appropriate colors and finish the piece.
About the Author
Carleigh Fedorka holds a Ph.D. in Veterinary Science from the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center. A Pennsylvania native, she moved to Kentucky after graduating from St. Lawrence University and has worked closely in all aspects of the thoroughbred industry. She spends her free time eventing as well as training, selling and rehoming OTTBs. Read more about her horse life at her blog, A Yankee in Paris.