Filling The Aftercare Gaps In States Like Arizona

Turf Paradise | Coady Photography

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Back in March, a pre-race exam at Turf Paradise led to Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bernie “Chip” Woolley accusing a regulatory veterinarian who had scratched his 10-year-old mare of furnishing him with the name of a horse trader who he suspected of being a “kill-buyer.” This is someone who purchases horses for export into the slaughter pipeline.

The incident triggered formal investigations by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) and the Arizona Department of Gaming (ADG).

HISA shared its findings with the ADG, which ultimately cleared the state veterinarian, Victoria Lowe, of any wrongdoing. Indeed, Lowe stressed to investigators how the horse trader in question, Jesse Bell, finds good homes for many horses that pass though his hands.

A TDN dive into the incident found gaps and factual inaccuracies with the investigations. Key figures also claimed they had not been interviewed by investigators, including Bell, who admitted to purchasing horses that would end up in the slaughter pipeline.

But more broadly, the incident peeled back the curtain on holes riven through the industry's network of aftercare programs in under-resourced parts of the country. Which begs some key questions: What does the industry need to do to plug these existing holes? How much will that cost? And how should industry stakeholders who want to do right by their horses once their racing careers have ended navigate this fractured landscape in the meantime?

Proper Protocols?

While trainers and owners have “a financial and ethical responsibility” to find good homes for their retiring racers, “I don't think that it's fair to expect all of our industry professionals to have those resources readily available and be doing the work of vetting and verifying potential homes for these horses,” said Lucinda Lovitt, executive director of the California Retirement Management Account (CARMA).

CARMA is the non-profit dedicated to fund-raising for the rehabilitation, retraining and retirement of California's fleet of ex-racers. By now well-established, CARMA provides funding to 23 rehoming facilities in the Golden State.

Lucinda Lovitt | CARMA

A focal point for these facilities is an “aftercare liaison” with roots at California's racetracks. This “liaison” acts as a middle-person between the trainers and the rehoming facilities. The intent is to ensure the funneling of horses into the right kinds of homes–a rehabilitation facility, for example, or a re-training program or a sanctuary for life.

“That's a person, boots on the ground, who gets to know the trainers,” said Lovitt, of the liaison. “I think racetrack operators owe it to themselves and to the sport to have someone like that at their tracks–someone with some resources who can point the trainer in the right direction.”

While other jurisdictions operate comparable programs to CARMA–like New York's “Take the Lead” and Maryland's “Beyond the Wire”–not every state does.

And so, at those tracks lacking a well-organized network of aftercare programs connected through an aftercare liaison, what should the connections of a racehorse suddenly needing a new home do (especially if they have done little to prepare for the day at hand)?

“My big thing is, be prepared for it to take you some time. Be prepared to have this horse for a little while longer,” said Lovitt, adding how the connections of retiring racehorses often believe the process to be a swift one.

Because of the time it can take to rehome a freshly retired racehorse–and because of the costs of stabling a horse at the track–Lovitt recommends that in the interim, connections find a local farm instead (if possible).

“I find that if you shift expense to a farm rate, they [the owners] are more willing to maintain the care of that horse for the time it takes to rehome them properly,” said Lovitt.

Lovitt's third suggestion is to review the map on the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance's (TAA) website for any nearby accredited rehoming organizations. The TAA accredits, inspects and awards grants to approved aftercare organizations across the nation.

“It doesn't matter if your horse doesn't fit these organizations' models. You want to be talking to people who are working in aftercare at a high level of knowledge and experience,” said Lovitt.

“These organizations have founders, have principles, have executive directors, have development directors, have whatever–they've met this standard of care and standard of operation that is highly scrutinized,” said Lovitt.

Even if a facility cannot immediately take in a horse, “you can ask them for recommendations,” said Lovitt. “Those are the sorts of people you want to be getting recommendations from.”

Another possible option, said Lovitt, are universities that maintain breeding programs, like that at the University of Arizona.

“If I'm an owner, I can call that program and say, 'I have a horse that is no longer viable for racing. I want to make sure that it gets retired to a place that'll be safe. Do you guys have any recommendations?'” said Lovitt.

The breeding option isn't always considered the best avenue for a retiring race-mare, Lovitt admits. “But I think recipient mares, or embryo transfer mares, or a mare sent to a university farm is a great option,” she said. “They typically have a long life. They're well cared for.”

Nationwide

The TAA has grown exponentially since its inception a little over a decade ago, to a point now where the TAA accredits 86 aftercare organizations, providing grants to 85 of them. These 86 organizations operate 180 different facilities that currently house around 2,500 horses annually.

Stacie Clark-Rogers | TAA WEB

All told, the TAA has helped roughly 16,500 ex-racehorses find new homes after their careers at the track have ended, and growing.

TAA operations consultant, Stacie Clark Rogers, said that the road to a sturdily built and watertight aftercare program begins at the racetrack and with the owners. Which is why the TAA has passed out a “Best Practices” document on the subject to many racetracks, including to Turf Paradise.

“We explain what the problem is here, right?” said Clark Rogers, “Those aren't best practices if you let a horse end up in a bad spot.”

But high-ups in the TAA are the first to admit that the current framework of aftercare facilities doesn't nearly cut the mustard in terms of providing a comprehensive national aftercare safety-net for all ex-racers.

The TAA's foundations, said organization president Jeffrey Bloom, are sturdy enough to “grow up and out” on this existing model. “Some of these organizations are really ambitious,” he said.

As an example, Bloom and Clark Rogers pointed to Beverly Strauss, who co-founded MidAtlantic Horse Rescue (MAHR). When MAHR first came under the TAA umbrella back in 2012, the organization adopted roughly 20 horses annually.

“She regularly now adopts over 100 horses a year,” Clark Rogers said, highlighting how the organization's growth has been facilitated by a strong network of “aftercare triage” at Maryland's tracks coupled with sustainable funding from the TAA and Maryland's Beyond The Wire program.

But what would a strong nationwide aftercare program look like? How many more aftercare facilities does the industry need, for example? Where would they be located? Who would run them?

The TAA framed the answer in numerical rather than in geographical terms, all built around this currently unanswerable question: Just how many Thoroughbred ex-racehorses are currently slipping through the cracks and into the slaughter pipeline?

For all sorts of reasons, the industry is unable to pin an accurate number to a question that sits at the very heart of its aftercare problems.

Border forms require only generic horse descriptions, for example, making it impossible to know for sure just how many Thoroughbreds are still making the trip to Canada or Mexico for slaughter. The rise in recent years of the “bail pen” cottage industry adds another disturbing wrinkle to the whole problem.

These are traders who purchase Thoroughbreds at auction before posting them online with a short deadline for purchase that, if missed, will mean the horse gets shipped for slaughter-a coercive economy, in other words, built on the exploitation of good-will.

Jeff Bloom | Benoit

And as Clark Rogers points out, “one thing no one talks about are the number of racetracks that don't know when horses are being shipped direct to kill.”

There are efforts to correct course, however. Last year, The Jockey Club announced a traceability project to track retired horses.

In preparation for the project's launch this summer, the Jockey Club recently encouraged “anyone with a digital certificate of foal registration in their account who no longer has possession of the horse to transfer the certificate to the current owner or appropriate certificate manager.”

A comprehensive national network of aftercare facilities is a tantalizing ideal. But these facilities aren't cheap to run. As any doting owner will attest, a well-fed happy Thoroughbred can burn a hole through the pocket.

According to Clark Rogers, the monthly aftercare cost per-horse across the country averages out at around $680–a number that will only creep up with inflation.

The TAA's annual operating budget is between $4.5 million and $5 million, 80% of which is doled out to its accredited aftercare partners, 10% for the accrediting process.

Clark Rogers is unable to estimate the total funding levels for all aftercare facilities across the country, including those not funded by the TAA.

Until it's known just how many more retiring racehorses the industry needs to catch, an accurate figure on a comprehensive national program is impossible. But according to Clark Rogers, annual expenses for the current crop of TAA-accredited facilities comes to roughly $48.5 million for both horse care and operational costs.

Furthermore, the TAA operates on a skeleton crew. In an ideal world, this small team would be primarily focused on the governance side of the aftercare equation, providing oversight of accredited facilities while ensuring equitable distribution of funds, said Bloom. But that's not nearly happening to the degree it should.

“Actually, the bulk of our time is spent trying to raise money to help support the industry's need for aftercare. It's a Catch-22. You can't really grow and expand the scope of what you're providing–in terms of comprehensive aftercare that's accredited–if a lot of your time is spent raising money to support that,” said Bloom.

“One way or another, we need a mandatory sustainable fundraising solution,” Bloom added. “So, who's going to pay for that?”

Official Responses

Arizona is home to four TAA-accredited aftercare facilities. After the Homestretch near Phoenix, Desert Oasis Rescue and the Equine Encore Foundation near Tucson, and the Harmony and Hope Horse Haven near the New Mexico border.

Despite several aftercare figures in Arizona working informally with trainers at Turf Paradise, one thing the track lacks is a permanent “aftercare liaison” on the grounds who can act as an official rehoming facilitator. Given recent events, will that change?

Turf Paradise gate | Coady Photography

According to Vincent Francia, Turf Paradise general manager, track management and the Arizona chapter of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) have opened discussions on the idea of such a liaison as part of a more organized system of aftercare. The funding component has also been part of these discussions, he said.

“This is the perfect opportunity for track management and the horsemen to unite to get this information out there,” said Francia, of a more systematic approach to the problem.

And what of the investigations that the Arizona Department of Gaming and HISA pursued into Woolley's original complaint? Both agencies maintain their investigators are guilty of no lapses.

“We were completely satisfied with HISA/HIWU investigators here because our investigation was focused exclusively on Dr. Lowe. We were satisfied that Dr. Lowe, who has played an outsized role in reducing fatalities at Turf Paradise this meet, did not violate any HISA rule and did not recommend that any thoroughbred be sent to slaughter,” wrote a HISA spokesperson, when asked to respond to last week's TDN story.

“Jesse Bell is not a covered person so even if he does export horses to Mexico for slaughter, we have no jurisdiction over him. It would make no sense to use HISA/HIWU resources (industry funded) to investigate someone who is not covered in any way by HISA,” the HISA spokesperson added.

The ADG did not respond directly to questions about the TDN's findings. Instead, the agency resent its original statement issued prior to last week's story.

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