In 2007, she founded the California Retirement Management Account, or CARMA, a not-for-profit organization which raises and distributes grants to horse-retirement and rescue operations. According to its website, the group is “dedicated to the goal of providing funding for the rehabilitation, retraining and/or retirement of Thoroughbred horses that have raced in California.”
To that end, the group — whose board of directors includes such racing luminaries as jockeys Mike Smith (of Zenyatta fame) and Gary Stevens (seen in the movie Seabiscuit) — has established a program under which owners donate one-third of one percent of purse money to the cause. On May 1, 2011, Magna Entertainment — owner of Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park in Florida, Pimlico in Maryland (site of the Preakness), and many other racetracks — announced that it would match all contributions. (Del Mar doesn’t currently match.)
As for Thoroughbred slaughter, Auerbach maintains that, at least for horses on the major SoCal circuit, it’s a thing of the past. “As a society, we’ve evolved.” Although she acknowledges that an “informal underground network” once existed to secrete discarded Thoroughbreds from the track to the cannery, she’s confident that the surreptitious trade no longer exists in California. She says this is due less to legislation than wilting pressure and intense opprobrium, the most effective approach being self-policing by the industry. (California’s statutory ban on in-state slaughter was enacted in 1998 pursuant to ballot Proposition 6.)
Auerbach takes issue with those who, in the name of horse welfare, would like to abolish horse racing. “They want all horses to roam free.” Groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), she says, are ignorant about the intrinsic nature of the horse and the relationship that has bonded horse and man for thousands of years. “Horses have driven civilization. Next to the dog, the horse is man’s best friend.”
New equine careers aren’t always idyllic, though; according to racing insiders, a small number of Thoroughbreds (there’s no accurate count) end up “retrained” in an apocryphal array of what some call “illegal sports.” Apparently, the organizers run in the same circles as folks who set up cockfights and dogfights. Alluding to the Mexican rodeo, or charreada, my contact tried her best to be circumspect: “It’s centered around a certain rural Southern California subculture. There are backyard rodeos, often on small ranches, where they have events like ‘tripping.’” (In tripping, or mangana, a rider on horseback attempts to bring down another horse, usually a filly, by roping its front legs; catastrophic, often fatal injuries are common and the practice has been illegal in California since 1994.) “They also wager on match races where the horses run down dry riverbeds. The horses are all hyped up on amphetamines. No vets, of course.”
No matter how infrequent the worst-case endings, Karen Groebli, a native San Diegan who first visited the track as a toddler, has made it part of her mission to end such incidents by intervening before these bad-luck Thoroughbreds disappear. I asked her how common “unpleasant retirements” are nowadays. “It’s declined,” she admitted, “but the issue is still out there.”
I prodded Groebli: “Why should people be concerned about this?” Noting that in Europe horse meat is considered a delicacy, I asked why the racing industry had, along with its most ardent critics, decided to crack down on the slaughter of racehorses. One reason, she said, is gastronomic. “They’re full of drugs. There’s a lifetime of buildup of things like Lasix and ‘Bute’; it’s unhealthy to eat them.” (Both drugs are ubiquitous in American Thoroughbred racing. Lasix, the trade name for Furosemide, is a powerful diuretic used to control bleeding; “Bute” is short for Butazolidin, the trade name for Phenylbutazone, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, similar to over-the-counter painkillers popped daily by humans.)
Groebli, like many in the racehorse-retirement herd, toes a fine line. Both an activist and a racing insider, she’s at once a booster and a critic of the industry. Sure, she’s vocal, but as a longtime member of the tony Del Mar Turf Club — where membership is by referral only and the dress code draconian — she’s comfortable rubbing elbows with the mega-wealthy, if perhaps a bit put off by the drunken gaggles of big-hat, opening day types. She’s also a well-schooled horseplayer who’s fond of trifectas.
I met Natural Touch in the southernmost reaches of South Bay, where he’d recently begun a year-long rehab stint in an 80-by-80 corral at South Coast Farms; it’s a ranch just a few furlongs north of Mexico, where Groebli leases a patch of flatland for some of her 40 rescue horses, "almost 3/4 of which are off-track thoroughbreds."
Natural Touch is one of the lucky ones, and, if his ease with my petting is any indication, he’s a pretty happy gelding. Foaled at Golden Eagle in 2001, he’s an affectionate, relaxed brown (bay, to be precise) who raced 55 times around the West Coast, including twice at Del Mar in 2008, accumulating $181,331 in earnings. His lifetime past performances display seven wins along with 12 seconds, 13 thirds and 9 fourths — 41 times in the money, if you count superfectas. Given that out of the thousands of Thoroughbreds foaled each year, many never even make it to the starting gate, and even fewer win a single race, it’s not a bad record at all. Along the way, he’d been claimed five times. At the end of his career, his owners were Gary and Cecil Barber and his trainer was Peter Miller, connections familiar to Del Mar horseplayers. But by March 13, 2009, when he finished eighth out of nine runners in a $10,000 claimer at Santa Anita, he was done. His running line that day read “no factor.”
Some time later he was purchased by Sarah Arena, a 20-year-old who hoped he’d make a good jumper. But he soon turned up lame with right-front suspensory problems and was given up to Groebli — “relinquished” is the term she uses. Using her own, rapidly dissipating funds, she paid $600 for him. This was enough to buy a couple of months of board and feed, unless, that is, the ten-year-old needed vet care, which most ex-racehorses seem to much of the time.