The Horse Fund: Taking The 'After' Out Of Aftercare

Michele Kuegler | Courtesy of Michele Kuegler

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Aftercare. It's a hot button topic that is continuously discussed among those within and outside of the Thoroughbred industry. And though the racing community has made leaps and bounds in its efforts to ensure a safe landing for retiring racehorses, there is always room for growth, improved planning and increased funding.

One charitable organization is forging a new path in this aspect of the industry, as The Horse Fund establishes a unique precedent for Thoroughbred ownership groups by taking the 'after' out of aftercare and instead, standing in as the gatekeeper.

The aftercare partner of the ownership group Wasabi Ventures Stables, The Horse Fund tracks all current and former Wasabi horses, from both their racing and breeding programs, and assists in their retirement. Though the organization officially received 501(c)(3) status in July of 2021, the work began long before that, spearheaded by Michele Kuegler.

“Initially my role was Director of Community. We have a lot of club members so I would do things to keep them involved. And then I realized as we began to buy horses, there's an aftercare piece to this. So, I became Director of Community and Aftercare,” said Kuegler, whose husband TK founded Wasabi in 2017.

Built on the concept of low-risk opportunity with an emphasis on sharing the excitement of involvement in the sport and the Wasabi community, Wasabi Ventures Stables members only pay a one-time fee when buying a percentage of a stake in a racehorse in the program. When the time comes that a racehorse is retired, sold or claimed away, the invested partners will receive profits if the horse produced a positive return. Otherwise, they never receive a bill and will never have to pay any additional funds.

So that's where Kuegler started. She began with giving Wasabi members the option to donate $5 to an aftercare fund if their horse left the racing program with a positive return. That money would then be pooled together and donated to an aftercare program in the state where that Wasabi horse had raced.

But it was how the membership responded after Wasabi lost Shamrock Kid (Dublin) in a tragic training accident in March of 2021 that Kuegler realized just how supportive the Wasabi community was of aftercare.

“He had been a pretty successful horse for us and it was actually a club member who said, 'I'm leaving $50.' It was just this continual following of that, other club members thinking 'I'll do that.' We raised so much money that we were able to fund the rehab of a [retiring] horse [at an aftercare facility],” said Kuegler. “I had this snowball of an idea, after Shamrock Kid, thinking 'Okay, this group believes in aftercare. How can I do more with this?'”

Mob Mentality | courtesy of The Horse Fund

After becoming a corporation in the state of Florida, The Horse Fund officially received 501(c)(3) status and Kuegler gave up her outside work as a consultant to serve as the executive director of the organization on a full-time basis. Since then, she has been single-handedly keeping track of every horse that has made its way through Wasabi's program and when it's time, assisting in their retirement from the track.

Though the numbers continue to grow, as Wasabi has transitioned from primarily a claiming operation to growing their own breeding program, Kuegler is a big proponent of taking accountability for all of the horses currently in their care and those that were in the past.

“I feel like we're part of the ownership process and we're responsible for these horses. I've helped retire horses that we owned for a month, but we had hands on them and we continued to run them, so we own that and we owe it to those horses,” said Kuegler. “Our first foals were born in 2019, so I track every single foal, even the ones that we bred that we will never race. We're the reason these foals are here, the reason behind those claiming horses that we had for a month, and though we didn't retire them, we still need to keep an eye on them.”

Utilizing her virtual stable on Equibase, Kuegler keeps track of every Wasabi-connected horse online and organizes the ever-changing data on an in-depth spreadsheet. It's a simple task when it comes to the horses retiring directly from Wasabi, but for those that are claimed away and racing elsewhere, tracing their whereabouts can be difficult.

But tracing each horse is only step one, as Kuegler must also assess how the horse is faring on the track based on recent results and decide when may be the right time to step in and contact connections.

“I have to be cautious of how I do it because I don't want to insult anyone, but if I see that a horse isn't active, I give them two months. It's common to give your horse a month or two off, to let them take a break, but if it's been two months and I notice they're in lower-level claimers, I'll reach out to let them know we're here to help if they're thinking about retirement,” said Kuegler. “I get everything from no answer to, 'we're not ready but when we are, we'll come back to you,' or I've had people that say, 'great, let's talk about this.' We'll usually offer to buy them, if that's part of the process, or just help them find placement. We've done a little bit of everything.

“I try to hopefully be a step ahead of the trainer or owner when they're ready to retire because we don't have a physical facility. If they say I'm ready to retire them, I need to have a safety net already in place.”

Since the early days of Wasabi, Kuegler has invested her time in getting to know various aftercare groups across the country through her blog series, 'The Aftercare Ally,' which she created to highlight their efforts and share on Wasabi's website and social media platforms. And this is the network that Kuegler now works with when retiring a horse.

The Horse Fund provides funding to privately purchase the horse from its racing connections, if it's a case where the horse has been claimed away, and also sends donations to the aftercare facility that takes them in.

“The thing that I'm really transparent about [with the aftercare facility] is that I don't know the health status of the horse and honestly, I'm not going to do a pre-purchase exam, because it doesn't matter. Whether the horse is lame or not lame, they need to retire. In the end, it's probably not going to change the price that I offer because I just want the horse to retire,” said Kuegler. “It's through these connections that I've made in the last five years or so that usually I can get a stall, and of course we make a donation to them or they might have a set amount that they need. It's nice to be part of a community working together.”

Morrigan | Courtesy of The Horse Fund

As The Horse Fund has amped up its work to retire Wasabi-connected horses, Kuegler has also amplified her fundraising efforts, beginning with a switch from requesting a $5 donation when a horse leaves a positive return to instead, giving people the option of contributing $5 when they're purchasing a share in a Wasabi horse. The donation rate has remained a steady 99 percent.

But just as the cost of everything else has risen, so has the price for a horse coming straight off the track.

“Last year, it was probably about $3000 to retire a horse, between buying them and making a donation. Now it's easily $4000, and I know that's even low,” explained Kuegler. “That's another goal, for our funding to be enough that rather than waiting for a trainer being ready to sell, I could afford to claim a 4-5k claimer, knowing that on top of that there are still costs. At this point, if I claim a horse for $4000 and I need to ship it and make a donation, we're looking at twice that. And if I do that, I can only buy one horse instead of two. But that would be another goal, to create some fundraising to that point.”

Since its founding, The Horse Fund has assisted in the retirement of 27 Wasabi Ventures Stables horses, nine of which were private purchases. In 2023, they raised over $38,000 for aftercare through the support of donations made from club member horse purchases, monthly donors and their annual fundraiser, 12 Days of Giving, during the month of December.

For Kuegler, the story of retiring Exxtop (Exaggerator) stands out as a particular highlight.

On July 30, 2021, trainer Jesse Cruz claimed the then 3-year-old gelding for $7,500 on behalf of Wasabi Ventures Stables. He raced two times for his new connections before being claimed away that September.

Despite the brief time he spent as a member of Wasabi's stable, Kuegler kept a close eye on Exxtop and in the fall of 2022, she reached out to his owner/trainer Marcus George Thompson to let him know that when the time came for the gelding to retire, The Horse Fund would take care of it.

After consistently finishing fifth and sixth in lower-level claiming races on the New York circuit, Exxtop finished last in a $5,000 claimer on Sept. 5, 2023 at Finger Lakes. His 45th career start would be his last.

“I reached out and the trainer said, 'I have him entered in one more race,' and then the day of, he messaged me and said, 'I'm scratching him.' What's even more amazing is that he still keeps in contact, always asking how he is doing and telling me, 'When you know where his home is, please let me know,” said Kuegler. “Some people on the outside might think this trainer didn't care because he continued to run him but out of all nine horses that I've privately purchased, he's the connection who has written to me the most. He even said, 'If he's going to be a jumper or something locally, I'll bring my kids to watch him.' It was a very positive experience.”

The Horse Fund purchased Exxtop privately in mid-September and sent him to Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Adoption Program at the Purple Haze Center in Farmington, NY. This month, he was adopted and has since started his next chapter in a new home.

“It takes a lot of time to keep track of this many horses, to keep information on each and every horse and stay in touch. There are horses that seem to disappear, so I spend time researching online and reaching out to contacts,” said Kuegler. “My calendar is now filled with alerts for races to watch. I've always tracked them in my stable on Equibase, so I know when they work and when they race, but a while ago I decided we should be watching the race because a fourth by six lengths might be wonderful or fourth by six lengths might be a sign that something is wrong.

“And then it's money…can you get people to support it? I'm just so grateful to have a club that supports this.”

Kuegler also keeps track of Wasabi retirees, doing her best to stay in touch with their new owners and receiving updates on their progress in their new careers.

“I think right now I have about 40 different people who have Wasabi retirees – whether they're directly from us or horses that were claimed away from us – who once or twice a year give me updates on their horses,” she said. “I wanted to keep track of their 'gotcha days' and there was no hesitation, every single owner knew what that day was.”

Wasabi Ventures Stables currently has 1,400 members involved in all aspects of the game, from breeding to racing, and as they've learned more about the importance of aftercare, some have even gone on to adopt Wasabi retirees.

For Kuegler, who wasn't introduced to racing until she met her husband, it's been quite the learning curve as she's transitioned from her initial roles with Wasabi Ventures Stables to founding and running The Horse Fund.

Seville Sangria | Lauren Floyd Photo

“I didn't ever think I'd be doing this full-time and if you'd asked me 20 years ago, 'do you think you're going to be running a non-profit that retires Thoroughbreds?' I would have said no. But now, I tell people that it's the best job I've ever had,” she said. “There are days that it's frustrating and there are days that are sad, but then I get a horse retired or I get an update and it's a feel-good moment, always.”

Looking ahead, Kuegler hopes that she and her husband will be able to purchase a farm, which would primarily serve as the home of the Wasabi Ventures Stables breeding operation and layups, but could also be a facility for Wasabi retirees to reside until moving on to an aftercare program.

“The big leap I have to make when I retire horses is securing where they will go, and if we had a place of our own, that would be great,” said Kuegler.

In the meantime, she'll continue her work behind-the-scenes, watching over the horses that have made their way through Wasabi's barns and stepping in when she's needed. Kuegler only hopes that the process of tracing horses becomes easier and that through her work, she educates more people on the procedure and its importance.

“I know The Jockey Club has started tracking them [as retirees], but I wish we made it easier for owners and trainers with more answers out there. There should be easier ways to report it and you should not feel ashamed about it,” she said.

“Maybe I'm naïve, but I think it really is about the animal and not just the wins and the glory. For all that they do for us, when they run and train, the least we can do is give them a good happily ever after.”

To learn more about The Horse Fund, go to thehorsefund.org.

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