And where do they go — not after the gates spring open — but after the race is run, after all their races are run? After the society matrons’ $1000 hats are back in the closet, after the losing pari-mutuel tickets have been picked up by the infield “stoopers,” after the last $7 beer has been drunk — where do they go? What happens to these well-bred equines, these well-oiled machines of flesh and blood, of suspensory ligaments and sesamoid joints — where, exactly, do they end up after Del Mar?
In search of a clearer vision of the golden years of a Thoroughbred racehorse, I accompanied Karen Groebli one morning as she showed me around a succession of far-flung ranches. It’s among these bosky patches of San Diego–style ruritania that Groebli runs Tijuana River Valley Animal Rescue, an operation that focuses on horses, including 30 or so Thoroughbreds off the track.
According to Groebli, the overwhelming majority of Thoroughbred racehorse owners are responsible and committed to lifelong stewardship of these animals. The reason is money. Few racehorse owners make much, however, which means that for most the lure isn’t riches but the prestige of ownership, coupled with a plain old love of horses. Money is also the root of other, less-celebrated proclivities, including, e.g., the relinquishment of horses whose presence in the barn no longer makes economic sense.
“To some owners and trainers, racehorses, once they no longer make them any money, are disposable,” Groebli said. “It costs a minimum of $100 a day to keep a horse in training at the track. Some of the less conscientious owners will tell a trainer, ‘Get rid of this horse.’ There’s a little black market out there, well-connected people, go-betweens who can dispose of horses.”
But before one can discuss the end of a Thoroughbred, it is necessary to examine its beginnings.
The life cycle of the Thoroughbred racehorse is more complex than it might appear to outsiders, folks whose notion of racing’s “back side” is the well-muscled hindquarters of an often-truculent, four-legged athlete. This prized beast — whose forebears’ characteristics (“conformation” to the cognoscenti) came to a place of standardization in England around 1800 — is not only the heart of a multi-billion-dollar business, but the object of an intense love affair, the fire of which drives men and women to become racehorse owners, despite the slim chance they’ll turn a profit. Which leads us to a question: How does one go about becoming the owner of a Thoroughbred racehorse?
According to the United Pegasus Foundation, one of the nation’s largest horse-retirement ranches, approximately 34,000 Thoroughbreds are born each year in the United States. Many, if not most, are bred explicitly for racing. Some owners are themselves breeders, people in California, Florida, and Kentucky (to name the most important states) who await the outcome of a mare’s 11-month gestation. If all goes well, the result is a spindly foal typically born from January through June. Other owners, either as individuals or parts of syndicates, buy directly from breeders or from auctions, the latter events held in locales such as Fairplex Park up in Pomona, Ocala, Florida, and Keeneland, Kentucky.
No matter how one acquires a young Thoroughbred, in order to run it, you’ve got to register it with the Jockey Club, founded in 1894 and headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky. Once you have the requisite paperwork, the next step — done at the track — is a lip tattoo; this equine ink serves, among other things, as a safeguard against racehorse identity theft. (In recent years, the collection of DNA samples has been introduced.)
Horses of racing age (two and up) are often acquired via the claim box, where trainers, usually representing owners, will, before the start of a claiming race, agree to buy a certain horse for a specified claiming price. At Del Mar, this price may be as high as $100,000 or as low as $8000. Once the gates are sprung, the horse — no matter how or even if the horse finishes — is now the responsibility of the new owner. It’s a calculated gamble: Is the horse sound? Can it win, or even race again? Because the connections aren’t required to divulge veterinary records, it comes down to trust, intuition, and the ability to judge a horse on sight.
It’s at the bottom-most rungs of the claiming ladder where abuses are most likely to occur. This has led certain animal-rights groups to allege that the picture of a wizened horse grazing in a verdant, white-fenced pasture is too often fictional. To be fair, horse racing has a dark side to its “back side.” A few callous (or simply indifferent) owners and trainers make decisions that result in sub-idyllic retirements for some Thoroughbreds. For the least fortunate ruminants, gloomier destinations may await, including, in extreme cases, Canadian or Mexican slaughterhouses. It’s in those plants, most horse-welfare advocates lament, that “old” (though some are as young as three) racehorses suffer the worst of the worst outcomes.
That journey sometimes starts when an owner finds that he has a surplus horse, often a Thoroughbred who’s not paying his way because he’s too slow to win or too unsound to race again. According to several anonymous insiders, the owner will then direct the trainer to dump the horse. The trainer, in turn, asks around to locate someone who can take the unwanted horse. In the classic “kill/buy” scenario, the first stop is often a horse auction in Riverside or San Bernardino County, held in places such as Chino, Corona, Mira Loma, or Ontario. After being offloaded to a complex of pens and corrals, the Thoroughbred (along with other horses of various breeds and backgrounds) is sold to the highest bidder — the notorious “kill buyer” — seldom for more than $600. In some instances, the next stop is a feedlot in Arizona or New Mexico, although some horses are resold at a smaller local auction before being sent across state lines. Eventually, unless the kill buyer can make more by selling the horse for an alternate use or a horse-rescue group steps in, the abattoir awaits across the border, where horse slaughter is legal.