Sunday, January 08, 2012

A plan for New York's Retired Racehorses

Calabar by a nose, October 15, 2003

For one obvious, fuzzy brown reason, Off-Track Thoroughbreds and their fates are a subject near and dear to my heart, so when I read the recommendations of the New York State Task Force on Retired Racehorses, I did a little cheer and maybe not just in my head.

These recommendations not only help answer the question of how to monitor the safety and well-being of horses on the track, they offer solutions and support to set the ex-racehorse up for success after the track. How? By training the humans responsible for the horses before the after the track part happens. They even came up with a way to pay for it--taking a percentage of revenue from video lottery terminals and purse accounts.

Being a bit cynical, I realize these are only recommendations and I wonder how we will motivate the industry to take responsibility--let alone even a fraction of their proceeds--for these bright and athletic creatures?

How about a little image triage?

Attendance and on-track betting revenue has been falling for years, and--good, bad, right, wrong, indifferent--incidents like Eight Belles breaking down and being euthanized on the track after finishing second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby pointed a glaring spotlight at all of the things perceived wrong with the industry. 

And then came Zenyatta--a horse that brought a delightful new public face to horse racing. There are so many fine racehorses out there, but Zenyatta's team gave us an intimate backstage pass to the world of racing wrapped up in one classy package. She is a force of nature--not just on the track but with her rockstar personality--and she is so obviously well-taken care of. Her owners and humans all around love her, and it is unlikely she will disappear and end up somewhere bad--a fate that befell Ferdinand, the winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby who disappeared and was likely slaughtered in 2002.

Unfortunately, hers is not the typical story, and I don't even mean the winning part. Way too many horses wash out on the track and end up in awful conditions. Way too many horses are so banged up on the track they can't transition easily (if at all) to any work. 

That's why this is so important. That's why we need the buy-in and the reporting from those in the industry. We need to support the owners and trainers that take care of their horses and turn the focus on cleaning out the muck.

Natalie, over at the Retired Racehorse Blog, summarized some of the key points she particularly likes:


I agree 100%. Not only will it make their transition off the track smoother, even a little bit of cross-training (say Dressage) would give you a more balanced, athletic and interested horse. There will also be monitoring of trainers whose horses regularly end up in the euthanasia-only category, as well as the trainers (like our friends Devon and Howie) who retire horses who are sound and able to move to second careers. 


Sounds like a "duh" but there is a lot for the TB breed to overcome in the minds of many in the horse industry. Going back to the point above, though, will make these beautiful, smart, and athletic horses more marketable. Using proceeds from the industry to support retraining facilities, places like LOPE in Texas and New Vocations, that give the fresh-off-the-track fire breathing TB time to learn to be a regular horse will also be a huge help.They "get" ex-racehorses and recognize their talent, work ethic, and athleticism can and most often does translate to successful post-track careers. A little PR helps, too, and the many great stories on Off-Track Thoroughbreds are a great example of those successes.


Absolutely. Facilitating this communication is a challenge fairly easily answered in today's world of social media. What if owners started early? What if they began really working with adoption agencies to not only place the horses they create and can't use, but retrain them for other careers? And why not play up that pedigree even if the horse is a non-racer? I know I get a kick out of the fact that Lena has Man O'War in her lineage, so why not have a jumper that has Secretariat back a few generations? Just a marketing angle to think about.

To Natalie's picks, I would add this one as well:


I don't necessarily mean financially, I mean get them involved with the horses. To continue to make money, the world of horse racing needs to attract new eyeballs. The old eyeballs, the devout, won't leave and the treatment of the horses one way or the other may not affect them. For the industry to survive, it needs to hook new people. It needs to transmit the way it feels to stand at the finish line and feel the earth vibrate as the horses fly down the track at you, feeling the thud of the hoofbeats in the pit of your stomach, watching lean muscle sweat and stretch and power it's way to the finish line. The racing industry needs to show people these horses LOVE to run in as many ways it can do that--and there are lots of ways to do that these days.

You're not going to connect with everyone at the track, but using the Zenyatta PR model as an example (on a smaller scale) is not a bad idea. Golden Gate Fields is on Facebook and does a pretty good job of telling us about their Sunday dollar days, but what if they started telling the stories of the horses and jockeys making a living there? What if every track had a blogger? A social media contact that brought out the lifestyles of the fast and fuzzy? How cool would that be? There are more than enough stories to tell on the backside of any track--and a lot of them are about good owners, good trainers, with great horses.

There are many more great suggestions in the report and I can only hope the racing industry in New York actually follows through--and that it then spreads across the whole country. There are good moral and ethical reasons to do this for the horses, of course, but there are some not-too-shabby financial rewards if just doing the right thing isn't enough.

As Natalie says, let's get loud out there!

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