As it turns out, traditional Thoroughbred “tats” make them fairly easy to monitor, at least when an effort is made, and it’s by checking tattoos at livestock auctions that horse rescuers have intervened. When they find an ex-racehorse up for sale (unsound older horses and used-up broodmares are typical), they’ll pay at least the going price; it’s a ransom, of sorts. But people in Thoroughbred circles say the worst outcomes for ex-racehorses are rare these days; the major Southern California tracks, Del Mar, in particular, are cited as exemplars, facilities that take the proverbial high road when it comes to equine welfare.
One well-connected insider provided statistics that bear this out. According to a woman who operates under deep cover in her (unofficial) capacity as a Thoroughbred retirement activist, 2000–3000 horses have left Del Mar’s oval since October 2007. From that group, only 5 have been documented as having reached the clutches of a kill buyer, and in those cases, there were intermediate stops, twists, and turns on the way. Thus, during Del Mar’s brief seaside meet, one is unlikely to see a horse whose last race will be followed by tragedy.
I spoke with Del Mar CEO Joe Harper, whose affection for racing as a way of life, as an entity beyond the balance sheet, is palpable. “You know, I didn’t get into it because I wanted to be in the racetrack business; it was because I loved horses.” Of Thoroughbred retirement, he says, “Most end up on a farm, living out their days pleasantly. The possibility [of slaughter] always exists, and I can’t say it never happens, but if we find out, we’ll find a way to stop it.”
Harper also stresses that the economic pressures that can pave the road to the kill buyer aren’t present at Del Mar. “I worry about the smaller tracks in other parts of the country, where they run a lot of cheap claimers. But the owners here are fairly well-to-do, and they understand the game.”
Among those who don’t understand is Frank Price, a small-time breeder in Aguanga and proprietor of RaceHorseDreams.com. Soliciting the unwary and naive via glossy internet pics of pretty yearlings in pretty pastures, Price’s website states:
Ask yourself this…Can I Afford Only $1.50 Per Day?…Find 5 friends. Everybody can each own 2% of the racing dream and it will only cost each of you $1.50 per day. Think about it…That’s less than a beer…a great opportunity to join the exciting Thoroughbred Racing business. Where else can you find such a deal? What are you waiting for? Step up to our barn before your opportunity has left the gate.
Earlier this year, long before they could reach the starting gate, three of Price’s two-year-old “dreams” were found abandoned at a farm in Bonsall. At first, they were in good hands, boarded at Santa Ysabel’s sprawling E.A. Ranches. However, as months passed, Price failed to pay his boarding fees; eventually he was served with a summons for a small-claims lawsuit. He reluctantly forked over $7500, then contracted with well-known horse shipper R.D. Hubbard to have the trio moved to another barn. When Karen Groebli got wind of what had transpired — it’s called “abandonment” among equinophiles — she retrieved the horses and tailored them to her operation. (Price did not return telephone calls soliciting comment.)
Until a few years back, abandonment and other issues related to Thoroughbred retirement didn’t generate a lot of buzz. Naysayers point out that equine senior citizens, even the most eminent, were not always treated with such reverence. Their poster horse is named “Ferdinand.”
Foaled in Kentucky in 1983, Ferdinand’s first start was at Del Mar in September 1985. He was a standout, amassing $3,777,978 in earnings with eight wins from 29 starts; victories included the 1986 Kentucky Derby and the 1987 Breeder’s Cup Classic. Retired to stud in 1989, his get — his offspring — saw scant success, and he was sold to a Japanese breeding outfit in 1994. In 2002 (the precise date has never been determined) he met his demise at the slaughterhouse, his well-muscled loins destined for pet food. Discomfited and embarrassed, if not shocked, by Ferdinand’s unseemly denouement and the uproar that followed, horse-racing insiders began to train a spotlight on the behind-the-scenes bogeymen of horse racing: the kill buyer and the abattoir. In 2003, federal legislation was introduced, but eventually defeated.
Regardless of the bill’s failure to pass (many horse-welfare boosters blame crafty propaganda by slaughterhouse owners), the spotlight was now trained on this once-dim corner of racing: breeders, owners, trainers, and track operators had come to the conclusion that the traditional blind eye, the blissful ignorance that had permeated the industry, did few men — and no horses — any good. No one in the game, least of all the men and women whose love of Thoroughbreds transcended purse money and graded stakes wins, wanted this sort of publicity.
The heavy hitters of the equine welfare world, those who’ve made lives out of raising funds and awareness, say that, for the most part, racing people (or “connections,” as they’re often called in the horseplayers’ world) go to extraordinary lengths to care for Thoroughbred retirees. Madeline Auerbach is one of the insiders, someone whose name is immediately recognizable by anyone who scans the Daily Racing Form’s past performances (or “PPs” as they’re known). As owner of the celebrated turf sire Unusual Heat, she’s been inside the breeding shed, the place where studs impregnate broodmares and — if all goes better than well — champion Thoroughbreds are created. On any given Del Mar race card, you’ll find her boy’s progeny, many under the wing of conditioner Barry Abrams.
According to Auerbach, well-publicized on-track injuries in recent years have spurred the industry to pay more attention to equine retirement. The best known of these incidents was the fatal on-track breakdown of the filly Eight Belles at the 2008 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, where the three-year-old was euthanized behind a screen erected to shield the crowd and a nationwide television audience. Auerbach says, “The whole picture of horse retirement has changed in the three years since Eight Belles.”