By Bill Finley
(Part two of a two-part TDN series)
There is one thing that virtually everyone within the racing industry can agree on and be proud of: the sport has come a long way when it comes to keeping retired Thoroughbreds out of the slaughterhouse. But, to many, that's not good enough.
Is zero slaughter a reasonable goal?
The story of a former $5,000 claimer from Charles Town named Singlemaltscotch is a fitting example of the difficulties the sport still faces when it comes to saving every horse. He didn't wind up in a slaughterhouse, but he did come close.
The rising awareness of the problem of slaughter and the willingness of so many people to do what they can to save a horse has caused a shift in how many “killer buyers” now operate their businesses. Many have discovered that they can make more money by reselling the horses they buy at auction to people who can't bear to see a horse go to slaughter. Numerous people have used social media outlets to sell horses they plucked out of auction. They mark up the price they paid for the horse and say that unless the new price is met they will let the horse go to slaughter. The dealers are not afraid to use terms such as “ransom” and “bail.”
Singlemaltscotch showed up shortly after making his final career start Apr. 13 at Charles Town, a track owned by Penn National. The horse appeared on a since closed-down Facebook page of a company called Sexton Horse & Mule, which is based in Sneedville, Tenn. Jason Sexton, a part-owner of the business, told the TDN he brought Singlemaltscotch at the Knoxville Livestock Auction. Sexton said that before his Facebook page was shut down “99 percent” of the horses who were posted online were bought by people and given homes.
“I think we're helping the horses,” Sexton said. “Last year we would ship two, three, four semi-loads of horses a week to Mexico. We'd put about 33 to 40 horses in a load. When we first started this deal we were down to shipping one semi-load every other week because we were selling so many through Facebook.”
Singlemaltscotch was bought by Heather Freeman's Helping Equines Regain Dignity (HERD) rescue. Freeman said she paid $900 for the horse and said her understanding is that middlemen like Sexton typically mark up the price of a horse they buy by $100 to $200 when reselling it.
“That horse has been at the mercy of a human being since the day it was born,” Freeman said. “We teach them to trust us. We break them, we ride them, we put them in little stalls and make them stand up and they do our bidding and then one day we dispose of them. That is wrong on every level. And I have horses of my own and I have horses that are permanently lame and I take very good care of them. Some will be with me until the day they die at an expense of probably $5,000 a year to me.”
Freeman's plan with Singlemaltscotch was to send him to a farm in North Carolina to recuperate, get whatever vet work he needed and then to retrain him for a second career.
But how did Singlemaltscotch show up at the Knoxville auction less than a month after his racing career had ended? What happened to the rules that are in place at Charles Town and on the books of the West Virginia Racing Commission that prohibit a trainer from knowingly selling a horse to slaughter?
The TDN's attempts to find answers from Charles Town, Penn National and the West Virginia Racing Commission officials led nowhere. Erich Zimny, the vice president of racing operations at Charles Town, replied to an e-mail, but said he would have no comment. Penn National's racing vice president, Chris McErlean, never responded to a similar e-mail. Roy Cave, who is listed on the West Virginia Racing Commission website as “Charles Town investigator,” did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The horse's last listed owner, John Shuler, spoke to the TDN and gave his side of the story.
“I gave the horse to a guy so the horse could pull chuckwagons,” he said, referring to a sport popular in Western Canada. “Once the guy got the horse, he must have taken it and sold it to someone else. Whoever he sold it to must have taken it to the sale. I don't know how it happened. I had no idea the guy was going to take it to a kill sale. I had dealt with this person before. He had taken two horses of mine and they used them in the chuckwagon races. I think those two are still racing in the chuckwagon races. I was upset when I found out what happened to this horse. I have 28 horses and nothing like this has ever happened to me before.”
Though Charles Town officials wouldn't comment on this case, it's easy to see why making decisions concerning penalizing trainers when a horse shows up at a slaughter auction are not as easy as they may seem. Though one can argue that trainers should be extremely careful when it comes to who they sell or give a horse away to, it's not hard to get duped by someone who promises they will take the horse and give it a good home, but then turns around and sells it to slaughterhouse buyers. In that case, is it fair to ban a trainer, which could effectively destroy their career?
The other problem is what to do about Thoroughbreds that are many years removed from their racing careers, and how to track how they got to the auction.
In the first part of this series the TDN featured a horse named Averil's Girl, who was put up for sale at New Holland. Now 12, she last raced in 2010 for trainer Steve Jerkens and has never delivered a registered foal. From the time she left the racetrack, her life story remains a mystery, and to place any blame on Jerkens over a horse he trained nine years earlier would be unfair. Like Singlemaltscotch, Averil's Girl was also posted on a website with the seller asking someone to pay “bail money.” The money was paid and Averil's Girl wound up at Hidden Pond Farm Equine Rescue in New Hampshire.
While a racetrack has the power to ban a trainer who sells a horse to slaughter, there is little if anything that can be done to a breeder or an owner of a pleasure horse who no longer wants to pay the bills for a Thoroughbred who hasn't raced in years.
And even though Averil's Girl and Singlemaltscotch never made it to a slaughterhouse, there are plenty among the horse rescue community who believe people paying the bail money for these horses may be well-meaning but are doing the wrong thing.
“I don't like it because I've seen how they prey on people that have very little money,” said Victoria Keith, who runs the National Thoroughbred Welfare Organization (NTWO), a group started by prominent owner Rick Porter. “I've seen way too many times people respond saying, 'I have to wait for my social security check to get here. I have to wait for a paycheck. I only have $10 that I can spare this time but I'll give you that $10.' It preys on those people. It's driven up the prices at the auctions whereas before I've talked to people that are private trainers, and they would go to auctions and buy the nicer horses, and then put some training into them and sell them, and they said they stopped going, because now they get outbid by the kill buyers. People would be a lot better off donating money to legitimate rescues than helping these other people.”
Still another shift in the business of selling horses for meat occurred when, in 2015, the European Union announced it would no longer accept horses from Mexican slaughterhouses. The EU was reacting to the fact the most horses in Mexican slaughterhouses came from the U.S., and the vast majority had been treated with drugs at some point in their lives.
“I think a huge problem we have is these horses should never be used for food,” said Donna Keen, who operates Remember Me Rescue. “They're toxic. And it blows me away in a time where everybody wants to eat organic and antibiotic- and steroid-free chicken that they would even think about slaughtering a racehorse since 99.9%-plus of all racehorses have had Bute. Bute never leaves a horse's system. And with all the other things, the antibiotics and the things that horses get, they should never be eaten.”
The Wikipedia page for Phenylbutazone explains that when humans digest metabolites of Bute, they can develop aplastic anemia, a disease in which the body stops producing new blood cells and which was the cause of death of Eleanor Roosevelt and Marie Curie.
Oddly, the EU did not enact a similar ban on Canadian slaughterhouses, and Chris Heyde, a well-known animal rights lobbyist, said its efforts in Mexico have done little good since slaughterhouses there were easily able to find customers outside EU countries.
Anti-horse slaughter advocates are now resting their hopes on bills introduced in Congress that would prohibit the slaughter of horses in the U.S. and prohibit the export of American horses to other countries for the purpose of slaughter.
“I think there is a chance that this will pass, but it's going to be tough,” Heyde said. “It's bipartisan and there are so few of those in these divided times. We just need to raise the profile of this issue, which hasn't been done in a long time.”
Backers of the bill got a boost in June when the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) came out in support of its passage.
“The slaughter of horses for human consumption is something the NTRA has opposed for many years,” NTRA President and CEO Alex Waldrop said in a statement. “In the last decade alone, thousands of retired U.S. racehorses have been adopted and transitioned to second careers. The development and growth of quality racehorse aftercare programs continue to be a high priority for the industry.”
In an interview with the Louisville Courier Journal, Waldrop admitted the NTRA had been non-committal in the past about similar bills because it did not see a clear path to finding suitable homes for the thousands of horses who are retired every year. But Waldrop said in the current climate, it was time to fully get behind anti-slaughter legislation.
“Clearly the public is very aware; they're focused on our industry right now, and that's a factor,” he told the paper. “The time was right to change our position…times have changed for us.”
The passage of any bill that would prohibit the slaughter of horses in the U.S. and the export of horses from the U.S. to other countries for the purpose of slaughter would be by far the most important step ever taken to see that American Thoroughbreds, as well as all breeds, don't end up on someone's dinner table. To make that work, there would likely be a need for even more horse rescue groups and a large increase in donations to the TAA and groups it has accredited. But that already seems to be in the works. In late June, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) and the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NYTHA) issued a joint press release announcing they had come up with a funding mechanism that would donate an estimated $450,000 to the rescue cause. Such announcements guaranteeing financial contributions to horse rescue efforts, whether they come from tracks, horsemen's groups or philanthropists, are no longer uncommon. The horsemen at Parx have put together a program where an owner has to pay $30 per start with the money going to horse rescue. The program, called Turning for Home, is considered among the best in the country, and all signs point toward Parx having all but guaranteed that no horse will ever leave its gates and head to slaughter.
Nonetheless, somewhere in North America, whether in Mexico or Canada or in an unlicensed slaughterhouse in the U.S., horses likely died today. The same will be true tomorrow and the day after that.
There are a lot of problems that are unsolvable, both in life, and in racing. Some percentage of racehorses will always break down; some will bleed. Slaughter isn't one of those problems. It's something the industry simply has to find the collective will to fix. Much has been done. There's more to do still.