Hibiscus Stables owned Frazil for 25 of his 70 lifetime races. He ran well for the partnership, winning five times and finishing in the top three in 12 starts, most of them claiming races, none of them more important than the race he ran on Nov. 30, 2016, finishing seventh at Aqueduct Racetrack.
“He came out of that race really good,” said Jon Taisey, Hibiscus’ executive vice-president for sales and client relations, standing with the bay gelding outside the National Museum of Racing on Saturday morning. “But he was just about to turn 11, and he was running pretty much in [low-level] claimers at that point. He was so good to us, and we saw the writing on the wall that he was tailing off. He probably was ready to go out and win another race. But we didn’t want to take the chance of someone claiming him and have him disappear. So we decided to retire him.”
One of the uncomfortable truths about horse racing is that equine welfare is determined by both financial and ethical considerations. It costs a lot of money to buy and support a racehorse, regardless of the level of racing, and it’s tempting for owners to try to recoup some of the money they’ve put into a horse, through either purse money or a claim. But sometimes — maybe even often — both finances and ethics point to retirement.
“Owners should recognize that spending money to train a horse that’s no longer performing at the top of his game is not going to be successful,” said Andy Belfiore, executive director of the Take2 Second Career Thoroughbred Program and Take The Lead Thoroughbred Retirement Program, both created and administered by New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “Continuing to train and run isn’t in the best interest of the horse or the owner. It’s a smart business decision as well as the ethical decision to retire the horse at the right time.”
On Monday at Saratoga Race Course, Take2 and Thoroughbred Education and Research Foundation will host a lunch at which racetrack veterinarian Dr. Keith Bogatch will discuss this very issue. The “Lunch and Learn” event will focus on owner education, and speakers will include Belfiore; trainer Rick Schosberg, chairman of the NYTHA Aftercare Committee and president of Take2 and Take The Lead; Monique Coston, head trainer and director of farm operations at Akindale; and Deanna Mancuso, founder and executive director of Lucky Orphans Horse Rescue. Both Akindale and Lucky Orphans are retirement/retraining facilities accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Association.
“Most owners want to do the right thing and don’t know necessarily what the right thing is,” said Belfiore. “The right time to retire a horse isn’t cut-and-dried, and owners aren’t necessarily informed enough to make that decision. I think owners need to get more involved with their trainers and veterinarians so that they can educate themselves about when that time is coming.”
Over the last decade, the Thoroughbred racing industry has taken a number of steps to improve its approach to and involvement with racehorse retirement. Those steps include establishing revenue streams for accredited facilities and creating racetrack retirement programs.
Giving rise to those programs was the increasing awareness that racing’s stakeholders needed to be responsible for horses when they can no longer race, that it is no longer acceptable for owners to disclaim knowledge or accountability for retired horses that end up in dangerous situations.
Yet nearly daily, we hear of Thoroughbreds that have ended up at risk of being shipped to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada. We become aware of horses that earned tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on the racetrack and are now in unsafe situations. Sometimes their former connections—owners or breeders—will step in to help when asked to do so. Often, they do not.
How do we reach the people who have irresponsibly discarded horses? What do we do with the horse that has changed hands multiple times since her racing or breeding days and is now in danger? How, ultimately, can we change the hearts and minds of people who seem to be impervious to the suffering of the very animals that have brought them joy, excitement, pride, or profit?
Programs like the one at Saratoga at Monday will help. So will the continuing education for owners and trainers that are mandated through racing commissions and the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority. But perhaps the most effective evangelists are the owners and trainers who are already doing the right thing.
“Hibiscus stays in touch with me,” said Jennifer LeGere, who adopted Frazil and has retrained him as a successful dressage horse. “They ask me, ‘What do you need? How can we help?’ Frazil is going to need some surgery, and Hibiscus is going to help me with the cost.”
LeGere had shipped Frazil to Saratoga for an event at the Museum. One of his former trainers, Steve Klesaris, showed up to see him, as did Jackie Davis, who rode him five times during his career. Fans of all ages stood in line to pet Frazil and feed him carrots and peppermints. Fearless toddlers stood with outstretched hands so that the big horse could gently nibble a treat from their palms.
“We could have run another race with Frazil,” said Taisey. “But if he got claimed or got hurt, where would he have ended up? To get an extra $5,000 or $10,000 in our partners’ pockets? It didn’t make any sense.
“Whether horses run in $5,000 races or half a million-dollar races, whether they cost $5,000 or half a million dollars, the cost is the same to take care of them. And they should be taken care of until the end of their days.”