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 iPhone in front of us.
We screamed at the tiny screen, and smacked our thighs as a plain bay swapped leads and surged to the front of the field. And when he streaked past the finish line with his head at another horses saddle cloth, we smiled and embraced.
It was the first time that “our” boy had placed. It was the first time he showed any true effort. And although it was only a $5,000 claimer, “our” boy finally showed some promise.
I put apostrophes 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, which I blogged about in Loving and Letting Go. In fact, Luke no longer even managed the farm that did in fact breed him, and we haven’t seen him since he sold as a beautiful yearling at the Keeneland September Sales of 2015 for $150,000.
But he is ours. And we are his. And every time that he changes hands, I reach out to the new owners, or their trainer. I send the cliche message that I always have, complimenting them on any success they have experienced with the horse, and then proposing that if – or when, the horse is ready for retirement or a second career, that they can reach out to us – no questions asked.
And 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 affiliation to them.
About 10% of the time, the trainer or owner will respond. And 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 it was we could have done more of.
And each time that that happens, I message a little bit more often. I call a little bit louder. And I try a bit harder.
Because there is a fine line between communicating with the current owners and their trainers and harassment. And it is unfair to always equate cost, or level of race, with level of care. I have seen horses who never won a race in their life come home looking like a shiny show pony, and I have 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 showgrounds after only 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.
And yet, time and time again, I see one common statement about this industry. It is usually from the naysayers, or from the external fans surrounding the business.
It is that the breeder is responsible for the entirety the horses life.
And I can’t tell you how much I disagree with that statement.
Now, this is not because I do not think that the breeders shouldn’t care, or that they shouldn’t give a thought about the horses entire life as they select matings, or produce these foals. I don’t think that breeders should consider their horses life over at the yearling sales, or when they turn five.
But I do believe that a horses care, livelihood, safety, and welfare lie on one person and one person only’s shoulders – and that is the owner at that moment of time. The one name on the sales contract. The one who is currently paying the bills and securing the care.
By saying that it is the breeders responsibility for the horses 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 others shattered messes.
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 get go – from the first moment in which the horse leaves my care. I have watched horses trade hands over ten times from the moment they leave my care – and shown just how difficult it is to secure that horse back into that care without spending thousands of dollars just on a purchase.
I have 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 – who’s prior race owners took it upon themselves to claim the 6 yo gelding for $5,000 just to secure a safe and sound retirement.
But what I haven’t blogged about are the countless others who I have watched fall through the cracks, and through no fault of the breeders.
The horses that we have purchased for $2,500 only to find out that after the injections wore off, the horse was unable to even withstand turn out. The horses that I have reached out to numerous connections of only to find out he had been purchased privately and to the sisters, cousins, brother in laws, neighbor. The horses that we have found at auction ten, fifteen, or even twenty years 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 farms staff, and the team which surrounds them – hasn’t tried. That is not to say that we haven’t lost claiming hand shakes, or had our propositions fall on deaf ears. That is not to say that we do not care, or are not pounding the pavement.
Many farms spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on aftercare. The breeders like Stonestreet, and Adena, and Darley. These mass producers which the naysayers lament for breeding such a large crop are actually following their horses and beseeching for their sound retirement. They are then either rehoming themselves, or donating massive grants to organizations like New Vocations, Second Stride, or ReRun. Or the breeders like Stone Farm and Hinkle, which place a note on every foals Jockey Club paper with a contact number to call if the horse is ever at need. The ones who bring them home to their own farm.
But they can only secure this aftercare for the horses who’s current connections are cooperative. Who do not desire that one last race, or that one last turf circuit. They can only help the owners who want helped. They can only assist the horses who can be assisted.
And on 90% of breeding farms in central Kentucky, there exists a field full of geldings which could not be brought home in time. Which could not be rehomed through the adoption agencies or their friends. A field full of large ankles and screws. A field full of horses which ran that one last race….or twenty.
So no, I do not think that the responsibility lies on the breeders shoulders. The breeders which are already attempting to fix the problem. The breeders which have cut the foal crop down to almost 50% of what it was only a decade ago. The breeders which pledge mass amounts of money to aftercare and the TAA.
No, it does not rest on them. Instead, hold your owners accountable. Hold your trainers accountable. And hold your racetracks accountable.
Enforce their anti-slaughter policies. Enforce their drug restraints. Enforce the vetting that happens before a race, and disallow any injured or obviously neglected horse from running. Open their minds to legit punishments, that are more than a smack on the wrist and a fine that can be paid off mucking stalls for a day.
Increase the transparency over the options these owners and trainers have. Show them the CANTER website and inform them of competitions such as the Retired Racehorse Projects Thoroughbred Makeover. Increase the number of “End of the Meet Showcase Days”, where trainers can highlight their horses which are ready for retirement while attracting local equestrians to attend.
And 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. Us breeders have to prove our horses soundness before they are purchased at the mass auction houses like Keeneland and Fasig Tipton. They leave our farms able and ready. But they do not always leave the track in the same fashion.
So encourage your owners, trainers, racetracks, and any fan affiliated with the sport to support the One Last Race campaign. Retire the horses before they need retired. Let them come off the track fresh faced and ready to jump a jump, run a barrel, or play a chukker.
That is what needs to change. And that does not lie on the breeders shoulder. Our sport can always improve, but lets 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, the buyers, the owners, the trainers, and the tracks. Now we just need to find the appropriate colors and paint the piece.