By Diana Pikulski
Florida Thoroughbred Retirement and Adoptive Care (FLTRAC) originated as an effort put forth, beginning in 2009, by the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (FHBPA), Calder Race Course, Gulfstream Park and professional jockeys, to find second careers and homes for horses that raced in South Florida. The non-profit organization itself was founded in 2010.
When Thoroughbred trainer Jena Antonucci became the organization's vice president in 2016, there were an unmanageable 297 horses spread out between several locations in Indiantown, FL. One of the first changes she made was to consolidate the whole herd to the current farm in Indiantown which is leased and consists of three barns, hundreds of acres of turn-out, paddocks of all sizes, and two outdoor riding arenas. Since 2016, and the hiring of Katie Schmit, well over 200 horses have been successfully adopted by private individuals. And, since January 2017, the organization has taken in 83 new horses, all of which have been adopted or are being re-trained. Currently, FLTRAC is home to 158 Thoroughbreds that raced in South Florida and every horse has a place in Schmit's plan.
“To get things under control, we ran hard in a lot of directions,” said Antonucci, “We completely overhauled the business side, rebuilt the brand, modified the intake process, and re-did the website and social media while Katie started to ride every horse to see what we had and what was adoptable and how quickly.”
“On the intake side, we instituted a requirement that veterinary records and a soundness evaluation accompany every horse,” said Antonucci. “One of our FLTRAC board members is Dr. Bonnie Comerford, an AAEP Foundation for The Horse board member, and she really took the bull by the horns for us with regard to the intake and medical direction of FLTRAC. We wanted to be sure to meet and exceed the vision of aftercare and embrace many components of the AAEP as we moved forward.”
“We initially felt push-back from the trainers but now all aftercare has evolved so that those requirements are the norm, not the exception.”
Drop in any day and you will find FLTRAC humming with skilled riders and experienced volunteers and personnel. The horses that are in training and rehabilitation are on a schedule and working through an individualized plan towards adoption. Finding that sweet spot where an off-track Thoroughbred will shine is a special skill. Some Thoroughbreds retiring from racing may be 100% sound and ready for retraining within weeks after leaving the track. While others, for various reasons, may not be ready for months or even years. And, the discipline or activity for which an off-track Thoroughbred is suited is often hard to discern. From tip to tail, there are myriad characteristics, conditions, maladies, hitches and habits to take into consideration.
FLTRAC's current highly organized and efficient model comes from the combined unique talents of Antonucci and Schmit.
“A successful aftercare model isn't just emotional,” said Antonucci. “If we don't come at it, even a little bit, from a level-minded business model point of view, it will fail. We implemented Salesforce to monitor all of our leads and TLore, generously donated by Tracy Attfield, for the farm business. My goal was to free Katie up to focus 100% on horse care, training and adoption.”
Thinking outside the usual box with the FLTRAC horses, especially those 300 that were already in the program when Schmit was hired, has been one key to the remarkable success of the program. Other contributing factors are Schmit's organizational skills and methodology. A former nurse, as well as retired exercise rider, she has certain strengths and a special skill-set well suited for the challenges of her position. She knows every nuance of each of the horses and also has an addiction to information sharing and good record keeping from her nursing days.
“We are totally focused on making sure that every horse is fit, happy, looks its best, and that the horses live up to what we say they are for the adopters,” said Schmit.
“Our retraining program is completely flexible depending on the horse. We have a very varied clientele so there is a demand for show horses, trail horses, companion horses, and therapy horses. We let the horse tell us the best fit. Obviously, the way we go about it differs if the horse is right off the track or has been turned out here for years.”
The obvious professionalism in every aspect of FLTRAC's work attracted horse and financial donor Amy Tarrant of Hardacre Farm. Tarrant is a successful former trainer of her own racehorses and now a successful breeder and owner as well as a philanthropist.
“I always put the horse first and as soon as I feel a horse is not cut out for racing or not thriving in its job on the track, I move the horse on to a second career,” said Tarrant. “For the most part, my horses retire sound and I know the horse will have a full life after racing. The team at Florida TRAC gives me tremendous confidence and I have been thrilled with the homes where they have placed my horses.”
Of the 158 horses on the FLTRAC campus, 80 of them, while pasture sound and healthy, are not able to be ridden. FLTRAC is partnering with the Man O'War Program at Columbia University Irving Medical Center to give those horses a second career. The Man O'War Program was developed to do clinical research into whether Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) could help the brain to recover from PTSD in U.S. veterans. FLTRAC will become the South Florida hub for Columbia to provide training in the EAT-PTSD protocol to practitioners and eventually host a program for veterans using the method of therapy and testing established by the Man O'War Program.
“The facility, the horses and the knowledgeable people at Florida TRAC make it an ideal spot for us in Florida where so many veterans live,” said Prudence W. Fisher, Ph.D. and co-director of the Man O' War Program. “We loved everything about it and we are looking forward to working with retired racehorses.”
“We already have a group of people recovering from addiction that comes a few times a week to groom the horses,” said Schmit. “I am always moved by the positive way that the horses react to inexperienced people and how the people respond in joy. We cannot wait to put our permanent retirees in action helping America's veterans.”
“We are very grateful for the consistent support of the FHBPA, The Stronach Group, Gulfstream Park and the jockeys,” said Antonucci. “Without the participation of these groups, the individual donors and the adopters, this wouldn't be possible. We've struck the right balance to serve the horses, the horsemen and now the veterans who served our country.”
For more information about FLTRAC, go to https://fltrac.org/.
Diana Pikulski is a partner at Yepsen & Pikulski, Public Policy Specialists and the editor of the Thoroughbred Adoption Network.