For most Thoroughbred aftercare organizations, the last few weeks have been difficult, but manageable. The coronavirus has meant a drop off in donations, canceled fundraisers and more horses needing homes, but charities like Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue have not hit the panic button. At least not yet.
“I don’t think this has hit the fan yet,” said Bev Strauss, the executive director of Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue. “I don’t think everyone is totally desperate. Everyone is sitting tight. In six weeks, are we going to see people saying these horses have got to go? It’s very possible. We’re hoping that doesn’t happen.”
Strauss is not alone. No one knows what to expect in the weeks and months ahead, and the uncertainly is weighing heavily on virtually all rescue groups. The aftercare organizations figure to take hits from a number of directions. With the economy reeling, donations have already gone down, a situation that figures to get much worse before it gets better.
With so many tracks closed, horses are not earning any money for their owners, which can make them expendable. The $5,000 claimer who is sitting idly by while racing is shut down is a prime candidate to show up on a rescue’s doorstep. With most rescues operating at full capacity, no one is quite sure how they will deal with a large influx of horses.
“We’ve seen it more in Louisiana,” Anna Ford, the Thoroughbred program director for New Vocations, said of the increase in horses aftercare groups have been asked to take in. “I do think it will be all around soon. A lot of people are waiting to see if they are going to get to race in May or not. Once that decision is made and if they are not racing in May, I think we’ll see a bigger uptick in horses coming in. Right now, trainers are trying to keep their horses in training until they know what is going to happen. We haven’t seen a huge increase, but are hearing from trainers who say they may have to move their horses, that they don’t know if they can keep their horses much longer or they are trying to prepare for what is coming.”
New Vocations and Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue have been accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), an umbrella organization that gives its seal of approval to horse rescue groups that meet its standards and awards grants to those organizations. In an effort to help the groups stave off any immediate problems, the TAA expedited the process of giving out the annual spring grants and has sent $2 million to its member groups ahead of schedule. Phillips said the TAA should have the funds available to make the next scheduled round of grants, which would be in December. But even a reasonably well-funded organization such as the TAA, which is supported by the several major racing organizations like The Jockey Club, Keeneland and the Breeders’ Cup, is not going to come out of this unscathed. Phillips noted that a significant portion of its funding is derived from the sales and racing. Examples include a surcharge that goes to the TAA when a horse is claimed at the NYRA tracks and a small mandatory fee owners and sellers pay at the major sales that goes to the TAA.
“Funding is being compromised overall because we have things like per-start contributions and claiming contributions. Those funds are not coming in,” Phillips said. “Obviously, this will be an increasing problem the longer it goes on. We will have to adjust.”
Particularly for the larger rescue groups, taking care of 100 or more horses is an expensive proposition. Costs include feed, veterinary care and staffing. The grants from the TAA and other organizations help, but no rescue can get by without its own version of grassroots funding. That could include fundraising events, direct mail campaigns or reaching out to donors on a person-to-person basis. It’s not a good time to be asking others for money.
“I don’t think we know the full impact this is going to have on us,” said Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) Executive Director Pat Stickney. “We have seen a decline in our donations. It’s really been just in last few weeks. Before this really ramped up, we had sent out a direct mail appeal and that just hit mailboxes. That will be a good test for us so far as how our donors will respond. We are still in process of reaching out to everybody, particularly to our major donors. We are trying to assure them that the horses are our first priority and will continue to be our first priority.”
Groups like the TRF rely on fundraising events, many of which revolve around major racing events, like the GI Kentucky Derby or the Saratoga meet. Those are now on hold and the rescues know not to count on them as a revenue stream.
“We have to balance the human end economic crisis and our duty to feed and care for our horses,” said the TRF’s Director of development and communications Jennifer Stevens. “We have to keep asking for that money and the support to keep coming in. But it is a delicate situation.”
The impact is already being felt as The California Retirement Management Account announced last week that because it had lost funding since the cessation of racing it was no longer accepting horses.
The aftercare ecosystem needs more than just money to work. In a perfect world, horses are continually being adopted out, which opens up space for new horses to come in from the track. The coronavirus has already disrupted the normal laws of supply and demand as it has made it difficult for rescues to find homes for their horses. Considering the economy, some people don’t want to take on the added expense of owning a retired Thoroughbred and many rescues are operating under stay-at-home orders where they aren’t allowed to bring potential adopters onto their farms to inspect horses.
“On our main farm, where I have sanctuary horses, I’m not allowing people to come here right now and the ones that are with my trainer, who is retraining them and getting them ready for new homes, also can’t take in visitors,” said Gail Hirt, the executive director and founder of the Michigan-based rescue Beyond the Roses Equine Rescue and Retirement. “[The coronavirus] numbers in Michigan are high and they’re not allowing anybody to go to the boarding stables. We’re not able to show horses or let people ride horses and get them adopted out. That adds to the problems. It’s really hard.”
Rescue groups also report that some individuals who have recently adopted horses have returned them, telling the charities they can no longer afford to take care of the horses because of their financial situation.
For now, rescues can adapt to not being able to find homes for horses. The concern is that there will come a time when they are being inundated with requests from trainers and owners to take in horses. Most rescues say they do not have the space and other resources to adequately handle such a situation.
Phillips said that the TAA is preparing for the possibility that a time will come when the rescues will be overwhelmed and unable to take in new horses, and that the TAA is working with The Stronach Group to create a triage program for horses needing homes.
“Hopefully, this triage program can be instituted on an accelerated basis,” he said. “It would be a place where we could help trainers, the ones who would be trying to give their horses away, through the process. We are accelerating efforts to set up a triage program, and The Stronach Group is helping us along. We want to have a mechanism in place for those smaller trainers who might be having trouble sustaining things. We want to have an outlet where they can take their horses.”
Marlene Murray, the Co-Founder of the R.A.C.E. Fund, Inc, a Pennsylvania rescue, said it’s imperative that racetracks, even those that are closed, continue to allow the training of horses in the mornings. If that changes, she fears that an overwhelming number of horses will need homes.
“I am hoping that all tracks currently not racing will allow horses now on the backside to stay there,” she said. “You’re talking about thousands of horses at different racetracks that would have no place to go if the tracks decide to tell them to get off the grounds. Most tracks house maybe 1,300 horses on the backside, and what are people going to do if they have nowhere to take their horses?”
The situation varies from rescue to rescue. The consensus is that the larger, more established rescues, have the resources to ride out the virus.
“We’ll be okay,” Ford said of New Vocations. “We have long-term plans as to how we we’ll handle things if donation are drastically cut. We can adjust our numbers, go from 150 horses to 120. We don’t want to do that because it would mean we’d be helping fewer horses but we don’t ever want to do a lesser job with the horses we have.”
The forecast for Beyond the Roses Equine Rescue and Retirement, which has 16 horses, isn’t as bright.
“We’re very low on funds, have too many horses and not enough money and not enough donations,” Hirt said.
“People aren’t adopting horses. It’s scary. If this keeps going too long I don’t know if I can stay in business. Financially, this situation could put us under.”
Like most of her colleagues, the TRF’s Stickney is trying to stay optimistic and says her organization will make it through these difficult times. But she can’t help but worry about what will happen to the horses under the worse-case scenarios.
“I think some of the smaller rescues might have to close and if they do I don’t know where those horses would go,” she said. “There’s something we all know but don’t want to say, and that is there is a concern that some of the rescues might have to euthanize horses. That is not on our radar. It’s not anything we at the TRF would ever consider. But I have heard the word spoken, and that is the worst-case scenario.”
Fortunately, the situation has not deteriorated yet to the point where any rescue has had to consider putting horses down. The sport is only about a month into the coronavirus, there are hopes that some additional tracks may be able to open soon and racing people have come through in the past to help the aftercare charities through hard times.
“Somehow, things always work out for these thoroughbreds. It’s an amazing thing,” said Dannielle Marturana, the president of the Arizona-based rescue After the Homestretch. “I don’t know how it happens, but every time I have thought the situation was bleak and that I had no answers, somehow things work out. These thoroughbreds, they are pretty special. Someone is always looking out for them.”