By Bill Finley
When prominent owner Rick Porter started the National Thoroughbred Welfare Organization (NTWO) in late February, 2017, his goal was nothing less than to solve every problem that exists in racing when it comes to the health, safety and welfare of the racehorse. That may be a bit naive and, obviously, is something no one can do overnight–even someone with the political clout and financial resources that Porter has.
But he has already started to deliver on his promises as the NTWO chose to begin its mission in Louisiana, which had a reputation for doing less than perhaps any other state when it came to keeping Thoroughbreds from going to slaughter or falling into the hands of what his key aid Victoria Keith calls “extortionists.” She is referring to people who set up Facebook pages, post photos of horses and say they will send them to slaughter unless the public pays a ransom a price to keep them from being killed. The price was always much more than the amount the horse would go for at auctions, where their only value was what they could sell for as horse meat.
More than two years later, Keith is still focused on Louisiana and says the situation there is now far better than before her arrival. The NTWO did not start operating in Louisiana until July and, according to Keith, it has rescued 118 horses off the track, mainly from Evangeline Downs and Delta Downs. She says she’s saved so many horses that her hay bill alone is $300 a day. Porter rented a farm in Lexington and the majority of the horses are shipped from Louisiana to Kentucky as they await placement in their ultimate homes.
It has also worked with the local HBPA in an attempt to get a bill passed where every owner racing in Louisiana would pay a per-start fee that would be given to horse rescue groups. Keith’s investigative work recently helped lead to the arrest of a local horse dealer on animal cruelty charges.
“We’ve concentrated on Louisiana for starters because that was one of the worst states,” Porter said. “She’s made big headway in Louisiana with the right people. We have to get to the organizations that have the clout to do something about this. If you can’t, you might as well forget it. I think we’ve made good headway in Louisiana and Louisiana is our test state. I told her, `Don’t go too fast. Get Louisiana down pat and get everything done there that you want to achieve before you touch another state.'”
While the racing industry as a whole has made meaningful strides addressing the horse slaughter problem, Louisiana’s reputation was that it was 20 years behind the times. According to Keith, there were only two rescue groups operating in the state and both lacked the needed funding to make any kind of meaningful difference. Kill pens and auctions that sell horses for their meat to dealers could be found throughout the state and racing officials there seemed to either not understand there was a serious problem or not see the need to fix things. The Pelican State was also a hotbed when it came to people using social media to demand that people pay a ransom price for a horse to keep it from going to slaughter. Eventually, that became the favored tool of the so-called `killer buyers’ who realized they could make more money from horse lovers saddened by the plight of these horses than from selling them to the slaughter houses. The problem with this means of “rescuing” horses is that there is no accountability. Where did the horse go after the ransom was paid and were they being properly cared for while still in the hands of the dealers?
Keith, whose new title is NTWO President, understood she couldn’t come into foreign territory and start making demands or threats. She says she believes most people in racing care about their horses and that the way to start was to have reasonable discussions with the right people. She started with executives of Boyd Gaming, which owns Evangeline and Delta, and said they vowed their immediate cooperation. They made sure every overnight had a section that told horsemen about Keith and that she was there to find homes for horses that were no longer wanted and Boyd also vowed to take action against any trainer caught selling his or her horses to slaughter.
“Boyd has been very supportive,” she said. “I have tried to not go in there heavy handed. I’ve tried to go in there and say, here’s a good alternative to this problem.”
Keith then teamed up with a local breeder named Lora Pitre, who helped introduce her to horsemen. She said it was Pitre who convinced local horsemen from a community that doesn’t always welcome outsiders that Keith was doing something necessary and could be trusted.
“She’s a farm owner down there and knows everybody and has apparently been on her own rescuing horses for years and years,” Keith said. “She’s been a huge help because people seem to be very comfortable with her. They would call her and she would make arrangements to pick up the horses. She’s been a huge help.”
Keith says the amount of horses that come off the track and wind up in the wrong hands has dropped significantly since she set up shop.
“I was told when I was researching the area that most people wanted an alternative, they want somewhere to send their horse,” she said. “They don’t want to squeeze out the last 200 bucks selling them for meat. They just needed to be educated and know that there are alternatives. Most people picked right up on this.”
Her biggest frustration continued to be the presence of off-the-track Thoroughbreds showing up on websites that preyed on people who couldn’t bear to see a horse go to slaughter. One of the first people that came on her radar was Dina Alborano, who started a Facebook page called “icareihelp.” She boasted of saving hundreds of horses in Louisiana. Keith had her suspicions about Alborano from the start. For one, she was not registered as a 501 (c) (3) charity and she was working with a man named Hal Parker to care for the horses she rescued. According to Keith, Parker was a former employee of one of the biggest kill buyers in the country, the Stanley Brothers.
Keith described the operation in a story she wrote for the NTWO’s website as something a lot different that what it purported to be. Louisiana authorities began to get calls about Alborano and Parker after Keith published her story and began to investigate. The local sheriff’s department found that Parker was keeping the horses in barns meant for chickens and many were malnourished. They also said they could not account for the whereabouts of 65 horses that Alborano had claimed to have rescued.
On Feb. 19, Parker was arrested on multiple counts of animal cruelty and theft of a horse. Union Parish Sheriff Dusty Gates told reporters that it was Keith’s article that led to the investigation of Alborano and Parker.
No charges have been filed against Alborano, but she posted on her website that she is no longer accepting donations or rescuing horses.
But there are still others in Louisiana that are involved in the “horse extortion” business.
“Dina is just one; there are other people,” said Keith. “There is someone else huge on my radar and has bailed out a lot of horses. The problem with them is there is no accountability, not with the horses, not when it comes to the money they’re taking in. If they say they need to raise $3,000 to save six horses, you have no idea if they raised $3,000, $6,000 or even $20,000. If these people don’t have a 501 (c) (3) and if they’re not accountable for their finances or for their horses, don’t give them money. They prey on the hearts of people who see these horses being threatened and they can’t stand it and want to help save them. Educating people is the key. Demand accountability. Donate your money to any one of the many reputable rescue groups that are out there.”
She believes Parker’s arrest will change things.
“When things happened like what happened here, where there were charges for animal cruelty, I think that can have a huge impact,” she said. “I’m very glad to see that happened to him. I know a number of people who should be scared right now because they know people are really looking at them and they know they are not doing things the proper way.”
Keith knows that there will always be the occasional Thoroughbred that slips through the cracks and winds up at slaughter. But she said by the time she is done in Louisiana, she believes the instances of that happening will be extremely rare.
Then it will be time to move on to the next state, the next project. Porter literally believes there is no horse welfare problem that can’t eventually be solved or, at least, be greatly improved upon. Keith believes that, too. Throw any problem you want at them. They’re up for the challenge.