By Bill Finley
(Part one of a two-part TDN series)
Denny Firestone has operated a small stable of claimers out of Penn National since 1993, long enough to remember when the man everyone knew as “the killer buyer” would arrive once a week or so and fill up his van with horses who no longer had much earnings potential. The next stop would more often than not be the New Holland sale in nearby New Holland, Pa., where they would be purchased at auction by dealers with contracts with slaughterhouses. They would then be shipped to a slaughterhouse, where they would be killed and their meat shipped overseas to places where the eating of horse meat is an acceptable part of the culture.
“It’s not like everybody talked about it all the time, but everyone knew what was going on and where these horses were going,” Firestone said. “It was something that was accepted.”
That’s not the case anymore. In 2010, Penn National became one of many tracks in the U.S. to announce that any owner or trainer caught knowingly selling a horse for slaughter would have their stalls revoked and may be barred from all of the tracks owned by the company.
In addition, the horsemen stepped in and started a program called “New Start” in 2013. Every time a horse is entered, the owner must pay a $10 fee to fund the program. Jockeys finishing first or second in a race also make a small contribution. Any trainer who wants to find a home for their horse can donate it to New Start–no questions asked. New Start will not refuse any horse, and then will work with and rehabilitate the horse until it can find a safe home.
Program coordinator Lauren Zagnit estimates that in its six years, it has found homes for 600 horses.
She realizes it’s not a perfect solution, but said she believed the program had made a big difference when it comes to keeping horses from Penn National out of the slaughter pipeline.
“Not everybody comes to us and we can only help the people who do,” she said. “But a lot do. Just recently we had a trainer who never dealt with us starting to give us his horses when they couldn’t race anymore. I think we’re making a difference.”
Firestone said he agrees. He says that the truck does not come around any more and says he has not heard of any Penn National trainer sending a horse to slaughter since the ban went into effect in 2010.
“The trainers know now that they just cannot mess around with this,” he said. “They won’t take the risk of getting caught and getting thrown out. I can’t prove that no horse leaves Penn National [for] the slaughterhouse, but I just do not ever hear of that happening anymore. Nobody ever wanted to send horses to the killers, but there were not a lot of options. Now, with a program like New Start the owners all have alternatives.”
The progress that has been made at Penn National is indicative of steps that have been taken at racetracks throughout the country. Where many people were once willing to look the other way, for the most part, the sending of a Thoroughbred to slaughter is no longer a practice this sport accepts or tolerates.
It’s important to note, right off the bat, that slaughter and humane euthanasia are not the same thing; putting a horse down humanely in its paddock is often a kind thing to do for a suffering or uncomfortable animal. Trucking that animal a thousand miles or more, packed in a trailer with others, and killed in a way that no animal with a flight response should be killed.
On a mild day late last fall, the TDN visited New Holland, a rundown facility in southeastern Pennsylvania where many of the buyers and sellers are Amish. On a similar investigative trip made there by this reporter in 1997, there were dozens of Thoroughbreds that were sold, most of them selling for prices so low it was clear the market felt their only value was the meat on their bones. Twenty-one years later, the TDN could identify only one Thoroughbred among the many breeds of horses in the sale, a 11-year-old mare named Averil’s Girl. She had not raced since 2010 and had never been bred. The TDN, which identified her through her tattoo number, was not able to discern where the horse had come from.
“Ten, 12 years ago, horses would come [to New Holland] right off the track,” said Bev Strauss of Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue. “Yes, the trainers themselves would drive the trucks. Those days are long gone. It started to end around 2010. It’s all been all about awareness. So many tracks in the Mid-Atlantic have set up really good aftercare programs and those programs have kept horses out of places like New Holland.”
Simply because far fewer horses are being bred today than 20 years ago, the number of Thoroughbreds sent to slaughter has almost certainly decreased. And Strauss is in the majority among those working with horse rescue groups when she says the industry has done a good job finding ways of keeping horses out of the slaughter pipeline.
Yet, the slaughter of the Thoroughbred still exists and remains just one more public relations nightmare for an industry that has never before faced so much pressure from animal rights groups and the media. Some media outlets have been lumping the slaughter and breakdown issues together, and don’t always play fair. When HBO’s Real Sports did a segment on the many current horse welfare and safety issues facing the sport, particularly the rash of breakdowns at Santa Anita, it featured a particularly gory segment that followed a horse from Mountaineer Park straight to a slaughterhouse. Yet, conveniently, it was not made clear that the footage was shot in 2008 and neither was it mentioned that since then both Mountaineer and the West Virginia Racing Commission have instituted rules whereby anyone caught selling a horse to slaughter is banned. No mention of the other strides taken by the sport were made either. With Real Sports, 2019 and 2008 were treated as one and the same.
But some remain skeptical when it comes to how much has changed since 2008. Some believe that because trainers know they are risking their careers, they are now skipping the auctions and sending the horses directly to the killer buyers, therefore avoiding the many watchdogs on the constant lookout for horses coming off the track that may have, in the past, wound up at places like New Holland.
“There are trainers who are not reaching out to rescues and saying, ‘Would you be willing to take care of these Thoroughbreds that we don’t want?'” said Heather Freeman, who runs the rescue Helping Equines Regain Dignity (HERD) in North Carolina. “Some people say it has gotten a whole lot better. In the three years I have been doing this, I’m seeing more Thoroughbreds now than ever. When I first started, it was more a case where you’d see the older, broken-down Thoroughbreds that had been off the track for a while and had been doing something else since they stopped racing. What I am seeing and hearing is that there are trainers who pick up the phone and say, ‘I’ve got 20 horses, come get them. Just make sure they’re not advertised or end up in the auctions. They have to go straight to kill.’ That’s happening more every day.”
One buyer involved in the slaughter business who agreed to talk to the TDN only on the condition of anonymity said he sees many straight-off-the-track Thoroughbreds who come to him with lip tattoos that have been altered or covered over with markers so that no one can identify the horse.
“The reason you see fewer horses showing up at the auctions is because people are shipping them right to the dealers and avoiding the auctions,” said Jason Sexton, whose company Sexton Horse & Mule buys at slaughter auctions and ships horses to slaughterhouses in Mexico. “They don’t want to hear all the chaos they’d have to deal with if they took them to the auction because someone would find out. So they send them straight to a slaughter buyer. We see this every week.”
The statistics indicate that fewer Thoroughbreds are in fact being slaughtered than would have been the case 10-12 years ago, but proving that is impossible. According to data compiled by the Equine Welfare Alliance (EWA), the number of horses slaughtered in Mexico and Canada peaked in 2012 with the total reaching 170,014. In 2017, the most recent year available, the number was 88,249. However, no data is kept by those tracking horse slaughter on the breeds of horses that are winding up in a slaughterhouse.
No horse has legally been slaughtered in the U.S. since 2007. The existing slaughterhouses had to close because the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided to no longer provide inspectors to man the plants and horses cannot be legally slaughtered without USDA oversight. However, that had little effect on the number of horses from the U.S. winding up in the slaughter pipeline as dealers instead began shipping them to Mexico and Canada.
“I can only tell you so much because of the lack of numbers available to us,” said EWA President John Holland. “My opinion would be things are better when it comes to the Thoroughbred. They have tried to make things better where, really, the people involved with other breeds haven’t. Gradually, slowly but surely, the horse slaughter business is being strangled.”
North American Thoroughbreds have likely ended up being slaughtered since the very inception of the sport itself. It’s not that people wanted their horses to go to slaughter, but there were only a handful of alternatives available to them. If a horse were sound, they might be able to find someone who would take it as a riding horse. If it were not sound, it might be very difficult to find the horse a new home. When someone came around offering $250 or so for the horse and no paperwork had to be exchanged and no questions were asked, many people chose that route. It was a grisly part of the sport that operated in the shadows. Few talked about it; some people at the racetrack, particularly at the top-tier racetracks, may not even have known what was going on and the public seemed to have no idea that thousands of Thoroughbreds each year were going from the backstretches of American racetracks to the dinner tables of people living in places like Belgium, Japan, Poland, China and elsewhere.
It was also more acceptable in a different time in America; older readers will remember when the grocery store shelves were stocked with Alpo Horse Meat Chunks. Today, people want cage-free eggs and humanely treated meat.
Now, virtually everyone, those within the industry and those in the general public, knows that the slaughter of Thoroughbreds is a reality, but this is no longer the sport’s dirty little secret. It is something the industry is addressing and something where a great deal of headway has been made.
There is no one tipping point when it came to the racing industry’s about-face regarding attitude about aftercare and slaughter, but a good place to start is with the formation of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) in 1983. A racing outsider named Monique Koehler, an advertising executive, became aware of the slaughter issue and made it a personal mission to do something about it. She started the TRF, which not only became the first rescue operation in the U.S. and raised needed attention to the issue, but also partnered with prisons, which had their inmates care for the horses. Koehler was also at the forefront of the movement to help those in need–be they prison inmates, autistic children or soldiers returning from war with post-traumatic stress–through horse therapy. Years later, scientific studies are proving that interacting with horses can help solve myriad psychological problems.
Years later, it was discovered that Exceller, the only horse ever to defeat two Triple Crown winners, Affirmed and Seattle Slew, was slaughtered in Sweden in 1997. In 2002, Ferdinand, the 1986 GI Kentucky Derby winner, reportedly died in a slaughterhouse in Japan. Not only did the deaths of these two horses raise a tremendous amount of awareness, it made people realize that virtually any horse could end up this way, not just a failed $3,500 claimer.
The TRF would eventually be joined by dozens of fellow rescue groups, all of them led by people who were appalled that an equine athlete could end up being slaughtered.
“I was buying horses from horse sales before it was the cool thing to do,” said Donna Keen, who runs Remember Me Rescue in Burleson, Texas. “I’d go and look for Thoroughbreds at the killer sales, and that’s probably going back 20 years ago. They were easy to retrain as jumpers and sell. I was buying and selling horses just to help find some of the retired racehorses homes. I guess about 2008 we heard about a horse named Lights On Broadway that had ended up in a bad situation and I offered to give him a home. When we took Lights we found out that he had been the Texas-bred Horse of the Year and it was then that I realized what a serious problem this industry had if a horse like that could end up that close to being slaughtered. It was really an eye-opening experience and we decided to get much more serious about our rescue. I couldn’t bear to see what was happening to these horses.”
It wasn’t just Keen. The entire sport started to wake up. Not only was this a horribly inhumane way to treat the horses who worked so hard for the benefit of humans, but it was a practice that the vast majority of the American public found unacceptable.
The tide had to turn, and one of the first major steps in that direction was taken by Suffolk Downs in 2008 when it instituted a policy whereby any trainer caught knowingly selling a horse for slaughter would be banned from the grounds. Today, most racetracks have similar policies.
Another important step was taken in 2012 with the formation of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA). Up to that point, there was a hodgepodge of unaffiliated rescue groups; some were well-funded, some were trying to save horses with virtually no economic resources, some were perfectly reputable, and some maybe not so. Someone needed to herd the cats and oversee the Thoroughbred aftercare effort. The TAA did just that. Its efforts in the fund-raising department have provided dozens of organizations with the resources to be able to save horses.
“We are not any different than any other industry that has gone and looked at itself and said, ‘How can we be environmentally responsible, ethically responsible?'” said TAA Operations Consultant Stacie Clark. “Knowing what we know in this industry, why would we not do the right thing? Given public opinion about all the things in our sport, this is one problem we can actually fix. At the TAA alone, there are 70 organizations that are accredited. And their biggest obstacle is funding. Because if they have the money to do so they will find a second job for this horse, maybe as a show horse, a therapy horse. People are starting to understand this and that’s why these programs are exploding.”