After the track: Options improve for racehorses

Network of aftercare organizations exists, but more remains to be done
At Peaceful Acres in Pattersonville, owner Nanci Beyerl stands with Alexandra’s Hope, a thoroughbred she saved from slaughter.
At Peaceful Acres in Pattersonville, owner Nanci Beyerl stands with Alexandra’s Hope, a thoroughbred she saved from slaughter.

As any financial advisor will say, everyone needs a retirement plan. 

Thoroughbreds need a retirement plan too, at least that’s what many equine experts in the racing industry are saying. 

When you get into horse racing, you have to include aftercare in your business plan, said Andy Belfiore, the executive director of Take the Lead. The organization, which is sponsored through the NY Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, works as a liaison between owners and trainers and accredited aftercare organizations. Belfiore and vice president Richard Schosberg work with just about every owner at the Saratoga Race Course. Since Take the Lead started in 2013, it’s helped around 400 horses get placed in second homes and careers. 

The notion of planning for aftercare has become more common in the past decade. A rise in aftercare education and aftercare organizations has given owners more resources when they do decide to retire their horses from the racing industry and can’t or don’t wish to keep them. 

Retirement has been good to thoroughbreds like Bold Mon. The grey-white thoroughbred raced at both Saratoga and Belmont tracks during his career. In his retirement, he’s with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, an organization dedicated to giving former racing thoroughbreds healthy second careers or new homes. Bold Mon spends some of his days being an ambassador for TRF and for other thoroughbreds. During each dark day of the track season, people can come to visit him and a few other thoroughbreds in the stables where he’s living not far from the track in Saratoga, at a farm owned by Heading for Home Race Horse Retraining and Adoption Center. The locally owned organization works with retired thoroughbred and standardbred horses to get them trained and adopted out for a second career. 

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Jennifer Stevens of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and retired thoroughbred Bold Mon at a farm in Saratoga.

TRF and Heading for Home came together in 2015 with the formation of Racehorse Aftercare Charitable Endeavors of Saratoga (or RACE), which brought together several local aftercare groups. The goals of Heading for Home and the TRF are similar – though, they fulfill different aftercare needs. TRF is more of a sanctuary, taking care of 750 horses across the country and Heading for Home is more about retraining and adopting out both standardbred horses and thoroughbreds. 

“There’s a network of aftercare organizations. They all have their own niche and we all support each other and there needs to be those niche [organizations],” said Jennifer Stevens, the director of development and communications at TRF. 

Having specialized aftercare organizations is critical because each horse has a different story and different needs. Some of TRF’s thoroughbreds get involved in the organization’s Second Chances program. The foundation works with incarcerated individuals across the country, teaching them to work with the horses and care for them.  It gives the horses extra care and gives the incarcerated another skill set and more confidence.

But plenty of thoroughbreds go on to become riding horses for schools or families. 

At Heading for Home’s barn in Saratoga, president Joe Battaglia works to retrain former racehorses to be trail riding horses or pleasure riding horses. Because the horses have been trained and worked just about their entire lives, they’re typically easy to retrain and great horses for pleasure riding. 

In the best case scenarios, Battaglia and Stevens are in touch with owners before they retire their horse, or perhaps just after. It takes on around $2,500 a year for organizations like TRF and Heading for Home to take care of one thoroughbred. If the horse requires any specialized medical care, that cost goes up. 

“Some owners do pay to retire their horse. They pay for their [horse’s] care for their whole life, which is amazing. Then there are cases where we’ve stepped in [to] rescue,” Stevens said.  

Both Stevens and Battaglia are hoping to prevent what Nanci Beyerl, owner of Peaceful Acres in Pattersonville sees all too often: thoroughbreds going to farms where they aren’t well taken care of or being sold for slaughter. 

“[Alexandra’s Hope] ended up in the kill pen. She wasn’t any use to whoever had her at the time,” Beyerl said. The thoroughbred was born in 2001 and was bred by Airdrine Stud. Inc, which is owned by the former Kentucky Governor Brereton Jones.  

But in 2015, Beyerl was notified that Alexandra’s Hope was in a kill pen, soon to be slaughtered. Beyerl stepped in and bought the thoroughbred, but it came with a high cost.

Because Alexandra’s Hope had been around animals with potentially dangerous diseases, like strangles or pneumonia, she had to be quarantined. 

There are around 80 animals at Peaceful Acres, with a mix of minis, donkeys and thoroughbreds. According to Beyerl, the barn is completely full and they’re in need of potential adopters for horses like Alexandra’s Hope, as well as Ziggy, a young standardbred whose story is too similar to Alexandra’s Hope. Adopters can be difficult to come by though, said Beyerl, usually because of the time and financial commitment. 

But for those who can’t adopt, there are ways to support these thoroughbreds. Peaceful Acres Horses, like other organizations, has a feed partner program among others, where people can donate funds to cover food or medical expenses. 

While Alexandra’s Hope’s story has a happy ending, the same isn’t always true for these thoroughbreds. Every year, organizations like Peaceful Acres and Take the Lead get calls about thoroughbreds ending up in the slaughter pipelines. Usually, they work together to get the horse out of there. There are still horses slipping through the cracks. 

It doesn’t help that it can be difficult to get a comprehensive statistical breakdown of where many of these racing thoroughbreds go for their second careers or in retirement.

While the Jockey Club and New York State keep track of some industry data – like how many foals are born every year and injury/death on the tracks – many of the horses aren’t tracked after their racing careers are over. 

In 2015, the New York State Gaming Commision attempted to locate all the NY-bred thoroughbreds that had raced between 2010 and 2012 and weren’t racing anymore. The goal was to create a snapshot of what retirement looked like for the horses. 

They found 1,871, which is just under half of the total 3,894 thoroughbreds. Of those, three were sold at auction, 356 were deceased and 1,512 were either retired and adopted or used to stud or as broodmares. There are still 2,023 listed as “unknown,” though they hope to locate those. 

“We continue to urge folks to contact us,” said Brad Maione, the Commission’s director of communications.  

The lack of documentation in the industry has concerned Susan Kayne, a former racing thoroughbred owner and founder of the Unbridled Thoroughbred Foundation and Sanctuary, since 2011.  After her horse, Bourbon Bandit was injured in a race at Aqueduct, she found that trainers and veterinarians were giving her horse medications and treatments that she didn’t condone. She also found that it wasn’t an uncommon practice and that there are many things in the racing industry that aren’t documented as they should be. She’s researched and spoke out about many issues in the racing industry, including what happens to horses that aren’t given an aftercare plan and end up in the slaughter pipeline or neglected. 

With the Unbridled Thoroughbred Foundation, Kayne focuses on helping pull thoroughbreds out of the slaughter pipelines. According to Kayne, around 120,000 American horses are shipped to Mexico and Canada for slaughter each year and Kayne estimates that around 20 percent are thoroughbreds. Thousands are slaughtered every year, but UTF works to get as many thoroughbreds out of the slaughter pipeline as it can.

From her years of owning a racehorse, Kayne knows that there are some owners who will keep track of their thoroughbreds well into retirement.   

“There are a lot of owners who retire their horses healthy,” Kanye said. 

However, aftercare remains a hot-button issue, said Belfiore, and one without a clear-cut solution. 

“The Gaming Commission is continuing our work with stakeholders to determine the best way to highlight the issue of responsible aftercare and how to provide a framework for a successful transition of horses from the race track to a second career. In the coming months we will be meeting to develop plans to expand the focus to Standardbred horses and to build additional relationships in the industry,” Maione said. 

The New York Racing Association is also making strides towards getting these thoroughbreds better aftercare. Earlier this year at Aqueduct Racetrack, horseplayers cashing in a winning ticket could choose to donate to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, which accredits and funds aftercare organizations. Since 2014, each owner donates $5 per start to the TAA. So far, that initiative has raised over $100,000.  

“We’re light years ahead of where we were ten and even five years ago,” Belfiore said. Back then, there was no real network of organizations for trainers and owners to turn to.

That’s changed now and there are several in the Capital Region alone. 

That’s not to say that there’s too many. If anything, there could be more. 

“Let’s just say in a perfect world, there were different phases of rescues and sanctuaries that could do quarantining, that could do retraining, can do the adoptions and also do sanctuary, that would cover all bases,” Beyerl said. 

Though it’s is far from a perfect world, Belfiore said that the industry is coming to realize how essential aftercare is to the thoroughbreds that race year after year. 

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