There are few more thrilling sights for horse-racing fans than the pack thundering around the final turn and charging down the home stretch in front of the grandstands toward the finish line.
We love watching them race.
We love seeing them parade by on their way to the starting line or back to the stables.
We love betting on them.
We love the entire thoroughbred racing experience, from hanging out along the fence, program in hand, to dressing up for all the special events, to having a picnic at the track under a shady tree.
That’s what we get from these horses, the hundreds that race at Saratoga each summer and at tracks around the country all year long.
We owe them more than a curt good-bye and good luck in your future. We, the racing fans and the industry that benefits them, need to ensure these animals are taken care of after the thrill is gone.
A horse only races for a few years of its life, maybe eight or nine at most.
Yet they can live up to 25 to 30 years.
What happens to them then?
That’s the issue that state gaming officials and others associated with the horse-racing industry have been pondering recently as they seek to identify older horses and make sure they’re cared for after their racing days are behind them.
So what actually happens to retired horses, particularly the ones that aren’t valuable stud animals?
They’re not all sent to graze forever in rolling hills of Kentucky like we’d all want them to be.
Thousands of horses — industry officials don’t know exactly how many because there’s not a reliable system in place to track them down — are carted off to Mexico in large numbers for slaughter.
That’s why a tracking system, perhaps one that includes fitting each horse with a computer identification chip shortly after birth, needs to be funded and implemented.
Many other horses are given a second opportunity to do something different other than racing. A number of organizations work to give the horses another purpose while providing care.
The non-profit Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, according to its website, accredits, inspects and awards grants to approved aftercare organizations to retire, retrain and re-home thoroughbreds.
Among the organizations receiving financial support from the TAA are the Ohio-based New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program, the Florida Thoroughbred Retirement and Adoptive Care, and the Our Mims Retirement Haven in Paris, Kentucky — all of which care for, rehabilitate and retrain horses for new purposes as therapy horses and dressage competitions or just allow them to graze in a pasture.
The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, founded in 1983, works to ensure horses aren’t neglected or slaughtered in retirement.
The organization offers programs that include retraining retired racehorses and having them adopted out to serve as pets, competition horses, police mounts, or as therapy horses for special needs individuals.
The TRF also hosts a Second Chance program in which inmates at prisons in nine states around the country are trained in horse anatomy and care. After their release, the inmates then go on to help care for retired horses, an initiative that not only helps the horses, but teaches the inmates empathy and a skill and helps reduce recidivism rates.
In his column on Aug. 20, our horse-racing columnist Mike MacAdam featured noted equine veterinarian Dr. Patty Hogan, who stressed the importance of retired horses receiving proper medical treatment, not only for acute problems they develop during racing but for chronic issues they face as they age.
She’d like to see a requirement that all of a horse’s veterinary records be passed along each time the horse changes owners to maintain awareness of the horse’s medical conditions and continuity of treatment.
But all this effort costs money.
Yes, in retirement these horses no longer burden their owners with the costs associated with training and medical care during their racing years.
But they also don’t often bring in the same kind of money in retirement.
And despite the public perception, not all thoroughbred owners are wealthy Arab sheikhs and Silicon Valley billionaires with deep bank accounts. Many owners don’t have the resources to care for a horse 10 or 20 years after it’s done generating income.
During a panel discussion last week hosted by the State Gaming Commission, finding resources was among the major topic of discussion.
Officials said that 20,000 horses are bred for racing each year in this country.
Despite millions of dollars being pumped into the after-care by organizations like the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, and despite other sources such as the $5 donation made by the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and New York Racing Association for each racing start at the state’s three tracks, the current funding isn’t nearly enough to identify, care for and treat all the retired horses.
Among the suggestions put forth by Hogan were tacking on an additional dollar amount to the various fees paid by owners during the animals’ racing years and apply that money to retirement.
Another option being discussed would allow bettors to have the option of making a donation at on-track wagering terminals, of which some of the winnings would go toward the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. That would require some technological changes, as well as support from the industry.
Yet another option discussed at the Gaming Commission Forum was taking a percentage of the admission fees charged for big races like the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes and the Breeder’s Cup and having it donated to the Aftercare Alliance. Even a small percentage of the take from admissions to a few big races could generate millions of dollars for aftercare.
Why not expand that to all race admissions, not just the big races?
Last year’s attendance at Saratoga was more than 1.1 million people. One dollar of admission applied to retirement, plus a few bucks more on Travers and Whitney days, would generate well over $1 million a year to care for the retired horses.
If we’re going to enjoy the thrill these horses give us in their prime, we have to support them when they’re past their prime.
As another Saratoga season comes to a close this weekend, this is an important time to raise the issue and to encourage racing industry officials and fans to keep working on solutions.