Saturday, December 26, 2015

Racehorses, Responsibility and Heroines

[NOTE: This was originally published on 9/19/11 and was, by far, the most shared and read post I ever had.  This still remains a talked about issue in racing circles and, to its credit, the industry has really stepped up and has made significant strides in rehoming its equine athletes.  In the post I mention a New Vocations horse.  The folks at New Vocations was horrified at what had happened took steps to make sure that this couldn't happen again.]

             Off the Track Thoroughbreds - playing, sound and adoptable at the MNRRP

I went to my first non-racehorse auction the other night with Annie Ringwelski and Jen Selvig of the Minnesota Retired Racehorse Project (MNRRP).  Our mission, well, their mission, was to try and identify off the track thoroughbreds (OTTBs) and do what they could to bring them into the program and get them rehabbed, retrained and placed in a good home.  For some background on the MNRRP, you can go back in this blog or visit theirs at

The night started simply enough.  I arrived at the wrong building and waited.  I texted Annie, knowing that she would be the first to arrive, and told her where I was.  What I didn’t admit was I had a knot in my stomach.  I didn’t know what to expect and my biggest fear was that there would be OTTBs there from the recently concluded Canterbury meet.  Even bigger was that I would recognize them and that they would have come from a trainer or owner that I knew.  I expected horrible conditions and cramped quarters.  Basically I feared the absolute worst.

When I got to where I was supposed to be, I surveyed the auction.  The arena was clean and tidy.  Stall space was nothing special, in fact I would consider it quite cramped, though the horses were only in for the auction and then moving on.  Picture your standard racetrack stall and chop it into thirds and there you go.

One special section was set aside for “loose horses”.  These would not be presented in the ring or ridden in to show off their skills.  These were horses that, if they struck your fancy, you could buy cheaply at the end of the auction as they ran loose.  If not, they were destined for the slaughterhouse.  They were run through the ring quickly and were kept in makeshift pens.  Three pregnant mares were together as were several yearlings with one elderly and emaciated pony and a couple of adults.  All were sold to dealers except the pony who was taken home by Annie’s daughter Daria who spent her own money to save her.  It’s not many nearly 13-year olds with that kind of compassion and heart.

      Ginger the Pony, saved by Daria!
The auction was an all-breed auction but our hunt was very specific – we were on the lookout for OTTBs.  Because the Canterbury and Prairie Meadows meets had just ended there was the very real possibility that some racers would have fallen through the cracks and ended up here, thankfully that was not the least not here.

One of the first people we bumped into after entering the auction was a gentleman that had purchased horses with assistance from Project in the past.  He had an OTTB, though not purchased through the program, entered in the sale.  It had a stifle issue and he knew he wouldn’t get much for her but was going to send her through anyhow.  I freely admit that I don’t know the motivation, but it certainly appeared by his body language that he was surprised to see Annie there.  My guess is that he felt “caught” and that prompted him to withdraw her, though I could be wrong.  MNRRP will now market the horse for him and make sure it gets placed in a good home – much better than a slaughterhouse.  Victory number one. (She was privately sold this weekend as a hunter/jumper prospect.)

A little later as we perused the stalls and the kill pen we found a tattooed Thoroughbred.  Jen ran the tattoo through The Jockey Club database and we discovered that the horse was a 9-year old gelding named Money Train.  Money Train raced in Ohio and West Virginia and was able to win three races: a maiden and two allowances before starting to have trouble winning at the $5000 claiming level at Mountaineer.  He was retired soon thereafter and went through the rehabilitation program at New Vocations in Lexington, KY.

He was placed with Bailey Saylor of Minnesota.  Here is the description of that relationship straight from the New Vocations website:

Adopter Barry Saylor of Minnesota and Thoroughbred gelding “Money Train” aka “Cash” have covered over 395 miles of terrain in 2009 competing in endurance rides of 25-60 miles in length.  He even plans to do a 100 mile ride next year! According to Barry, he could not ask for a better horse than “Cash”. He has the whole package for a sport that demands a lot from a horse. He is the best OTTB that he has ever had. He has the attitude; loves to go down the trail even at the 50 mile mark, takes care of himself on the trail, and has the physical attributes to enable him to accomplish the miles and stay sound.  “I can’t keep track of the compliments that I get on how gorgeous he is when we pass someone going down the trail. He has stolen my heart with his personality, intelligence and his drive. He is a wonderful animal. Thank you for making our being together possible.”

The note that was left at the auction house for the horse gave some background about his endurance riding capabilities as well as a general description of his exemplary behavior. 

Just after Money Train was identified, it was his turn to get sent through the ring.  We literally ran back to the arena and jumped into the stands just in time for the bidding to begin.  Initially the only bid was from a kill buyer and that was Annie’s signal to get into action.  The bidding was raised a few times but there was only two-way action.  Once the price got too high for the kill buyer to make a profit, the horse was property of the MNRRP - $210. 

It was exhilarating.  Victory number two.  Sure, the gelding through the ring was just one, but it was a racer and a well-trained one at that.  He certainly didn’t deserve to be dumped here.  The goal of the program now will be to get him to a qualified new home as soon as he is ready.  Considering he had been off track for a while in another discipline “Cash” will hopefully have a short stay since his down time to recover from the racetrack is non-existent.  Still, work will have to be done with him in order to prove his soundness and readiness to move on.  The adoption fee should cover his costs and provide a bit extra to be able to help another OTTB, giving the program the ability to grow and help more horses in need.  If there is one thing that is certain in this world of the OTTB: there is more supply than help available.

I was Tweeting (@tlgrevelis, if you’re interested in following) as the experience was unfolding and Caroline Betts of the Southern California Thoroughbred Rescue immediately sent a response to a Tweet that she was sure Cash was a New Vocations horse.  I was able to send a note to New Vocations through Facebook, giving them the heads up and the next day they were able to get in touch with Annie to give her his specifics.  They were thankful that we were there and were able to prevent him being sold by the pound.

During the walk through the kill pen – excuse me, the loose horse pen – I spotted a large paint, possibly part Saddlebred.  He was magnificent.  He had one of the most beautiful heads I’d ever seen and he was very tall, over 16 hands high.  He looked regal and totally misplaced in that pen.  He allowed himself to be patted and seemed friendly, but as with the other kill pen…loose horse pen…horses, you never know what you’re getting.

The saved part Saddlebred paint and yours truly at the farm. 

There was something about him, though, that gnawed at me.  He wasn’t an ex-racer, so he couldn’t be a program horse so I resigned myself to the fact that this guy was getting shipped south, but he ate at me.  There is a lot I’m still learning about judging a horse, but something with him just didn’t feel “right”.  The next day we tried to raise enough money to buy him back from the kill buyer.  Thanks to various friends and the networking available through social media, we were able to post his bail.  I’m looking forward to helping out with him as he moves forward.  I’m sure you’ll read more about him in this space as time goes by.  While I was thrilled to pieces to get him out of there and a shot at a good life, what it led to was even more disturbing and was right in the Project’s wheelhouse.

When he was being picked up at the feed lot, a pen was discovered with five Thoroughbreds and another outside.  All of the five still had their racing plates on. 

These horses were purchased off the track by a known dealer who likes to say he has “a good riding home” for them, forks over a couple of hundred bucks and away they go to Mexico or Canada.   Donating your Thoroughbred to the Project or another program can get you a $5000 tax credit.  Selling to the dealer gets you $200 cash.  Is it really worth it?

An outpouring of support from some of the local horse community, most notably from Minnesota Thoroughbred Association Board President Scott Rake among others, enabled the Project to save several of the horses, though it was already too late for one and an unraced Kansas bred.  These horses are now in the program and can be read about at the MNRRP blog.

The entire experience was a roller coaster ride.  The heartbreaking discovery of the OTTBs at the auction; the exhilaration of being able to save them for new careers; the high of knowing that no thoroughbreds fell through the cracks only to be brought crashing down to Earth the next day finding six in the feed lot; the last minute reprieve for the four, but not being able to save the other two.  This was just two days in my life – this IS the life of the MNRRP.

The strength and dedication of these women is phenomenal.  The deep well of compassion they possess tempered by the harsh reality that you can’t save them all is admirable and remarkable.  Quite frankly, anyone who wants to own a horse – racehorse or otherwise – should have to experience what I did.  They should have to see the pregnant mares that will be slaughtered along with their unwanted and unborn foals.  They should see the fear in the eyes of the weanlings who never asked to be born and will only live a short and brutal life anyway.  They need to see the starving and emaciated ponies that were simply discarded.  Reckless breeding and even more reckless ownership needs to be avoided.  A look at the harsh reality of what can happen "after" would promote more responsible ownership in all phases of equine activity.

It's important to recognize that while racing gets a bad rap, out of the 110 or so horse in the feed lot for shipment, only five were ex-racehorses.  The remainder were dumped by owners involved in other disciplines or had them as pets.  Even at the auction we only found 2 OTTBs compared to the hundreds run through the ring.  Racing may not be perfect, but it is far from the largest cause of the problem.

If you’re in the game – an owner, trainer or even a fan, support your local organization that helps to retire these horses to another life and career. 

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