The Piper Rose Story: One of Aftercare and Regulatory Deficiencies in Arizona

Coady

By

In mid-April, trainer Bernie “Chip” Woolley, best known for winning the 2009 GI Kentucky Derby with Mine That Bird, issued a formal complaint with the Turf Paradise stewards, claiming that Victoria Lowe, an official veterinarian employed by the Arizona Department of Gaming (ADG), had furnished him with the name of a potential kill buyer after scratching his 10-year-old race mare, Piper Rose (Whiskey Wisdom).

And while an official ADG investigation absolved Lowe of any wrongdoing, the fallout from the incident highlights glaring holes that still exist in the industry's network of aftercare programs in under-resourced parts of the country and raises serious questions over just how stringently regulators police this corner of the sport.

The incident also taps into a simmering undercurrent of tension as regulators seek to further shrink the nation's equine fatality rate–friction between trainers and track veterinarians over which horses pose a heightened risk of injury.

A kill buyer is a colloquial name for a horse trader who purchases horses for export into the slaughter pipeline. Language in the Turf Paradise stall application bars a licensee who sells a horse previously stabled at the track for slaughter from the grounds, denies them future stalls and positions them for further possible actions by the stewards.

According to Woolley, Lowe voiced concern about the way Piper Rose jogged during a pre-race exam on Mar. 20. Piper Rose has raced 79 times and won nearly $200,000 in prize money. She had won her prior race at Turf Paradise for Woolley, who said that he disagreed with Lowe, arguing that the mare's gait was not out of the ordinary.

Woolley and Lowe sought a second opinion from another track veterinarian, who agreed with Lowe. At this point, the decision was made to scratch Piper Rose from her race.

Woolley said that he then made the following disgruntled and off-hand remark: “'What am I going to do with one like her, cut her head off?'”

According to Woolley, Lowe responded with the following: “'I've got a guy's number. He crosses a load a week to Mexico. And if you want his number, I can give it to you.'”

“Everybody knows what crossing to Mexico means,” Woolley told the TDN, about his reaction to the comment. The incident was first reported in Indian Charlie. “I was kind of stunned by the whole thing. I was like, 'she didn't just say that?'”

While horse slaughter is banned in the U.S., the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that in 2022, more than 16,300 horses were sent to Mexico and 5,100 horses sent to Canada respectively for slaughter.

Woolley said that after seeking guidance from Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association Executive Director Leroy Gessmann, he asked Lowe for the name and phone number of the individual, which Lowe subsequently provided via text. Woolley then furnished the ADG with this information.

According to the ADG, Juan Carlos Estrada, the agency's assistant director for boxing, MMA and racing, reportedly “pulled the records” on the individual and found “no foul play with the hauler.”

Chip Woolley during Mine That Bird's Triple Crown run | Sarah Andrew

The ADG reports that Woolley was upset at how “arrogant, aggressive, and argumentative” Estrada was, and asked for a separate investigation within the agency. He also went to the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA). Both agencies initiated their own investigations. HISA shared its findings with the ADG, which ultimately cleared Lowe of any wrongdoing.

HISA's investigation report (which is included in the ADG's longer report) notes how Lowe denied making the remark about shipping the horse across the Mexican border.

The report similarly notes how Lowe sent Woolley a clarifying text in April, when she learned the matter was circulating the Turf Paradise backstretch. According to the report, Woolley originally failed to disclose the following text to investigators:

“I think you are mistaken as what I meant,” Lowe texted Woolley on Apr. 10. “When you said you were going to shoot the horse in the head because I scratched it. I said you can call this guy. He buys horses people want to kill as he gives them a 2nd chance in life. He uses them in movies and is very well-known. I thought it would be cool if you knew him as you have a cool story too. But anyway.”

HISA's investigation report notes a “review of open-source social media information” indicating that the horse trader identified by Lowe, Jesse Bell, “had a public facing persona as a business that operated an Arizona ranch that offered guided horseback rides and provided teams, wagons, and drivers for special events and movie shoots.”

The ADG investigator also noted how Lowe appeared “extremely upset and shaken” when interviewed about the matter.

“[Lowe] has been intimidated so badly by Mr. Woolley's actions that she found herself having a hard time conducting her job without fearing his retaliation, and that somehow Mr. Woolley had told clients from her private practice that she participated in illegal match races and they had come to her to complain about the accusations,” the report states.

Lowe failed to respond to the TDN's multiple requests for comment.

The ADG's assistant director of business administration, Andrew Hawkes, wrote in an email to the TDN how the two separate investigations determined no HISA-related provisions were violated.

“ADG determined that the complaint filed against the veterinarian was without merit and was not substantiated, thus the investigation was finalized and closed as of May 15, 2024,” wrote Hawkes, adding how the agency conducted a “thorough investigation of the facts and allegations.”

But just how thorough was that investigation?

Bell told the TDN that while he finds homes for “99%” of the horses he purchases, some of them end up for slaughter.

“A general horse always has a home,” said Bell. “Unless he's one that will bite you, strike you or chase you out the corral. He goes to slaughter.”

Furthermore, Bell claims that he has never been contacted by investigators from either HISA or the ADG about the matter. “Nobody has,” he said. “You're the only person who has ever called me.”

The “Sting”

Both the ADG and HISA “investigation reports” mention a sting-like effort by associates of Woolley, who had communicated with Bell, pretending to have a group of Turf Paradise-based horses for sale out of the country.

According to Woolley, he was told multiple times by state regulators that he would need proof Bell purchases horses for slaughter before they could take possible action.

Other than documenting the incident, neither HISA nor the ADG offer any further follow-up analysis. There also appear to be some factual irregularities in their rendering of the incident, along with an incomplete detailing of important supporting evidence.

The ADG and HISA name Cynthia Peterson, who operates an informal racehorse rescue service, as the person who communicated with Bell. According to Peterson, it was Mary Lee who orchestrated this arrangement on his behalf.

Piper Rose | Mary Lee

Lee is a small-scale trainer and Off-Track Thoroughbred (OTTB) advocate. Though she lives in Louisiana, she still routinely visits Turf Paradise to help trainers find homes for their horses, including for Woolley.

As with Bell, Peterson and Lee similarly claim that they have never been contacted by any investigators from either HISA or the ADG about this matter.

According to Lee, she contacted Bell via text through an associate of hers (who isn't Peterson but who asked to remain anonymous because of her ongoing work rehoming ex-racehorses).

Through a series of text messages–shared with the TDN–Lee and her associate explain to Bell that they have three or four horses at Turf Paradise that they “just want gone.”

Lee and her associate make clear the horses are worth little money. “Lame af just need em gone,” they write in one text. In another text, they write “can you get them outta the country that is the main priority.”

Bell answers, “yes.”

Lee and her associate then ask, “Canada or south.”

Bell responds: “Presidio Texas.”

The Texan town of Presidio is a hub of the Southern border trade in horsemeat. In one text, Bell claims to have started exporting horses when he was 13 years of age.

In a separate set of messages shared with TDN, Lee and her associate converse with the driver of the truck sent by Bell to Turf Paradise to pick up the horses. This took place on Apr. 12, she said.

After the truck arrived at Turf Paradise, Lee and her associate messaged the driver to say the original horses had already been sold but suggest there could be others to take their place.

“There might be a couple others if you can wait like 5 mins?” they write.

“We got 5 minutes and I'm going to take off,” the driver of the truck then responded.

Before the truck driver left Turf Paradise empty-handed, Woolley took a picture of the vehicle and its license plate, which he shared with investigators.

In HISA's report, the investigator includes several of the aforementioned text messages with Bell, but not the entire conversation that Lee shared with the TDN, which includes the passage that mentions Presidio, Texas.

Lee said she believes the truck driver was familiar with Turf Paradise because the gate they sent him to is difficult to find using normal GPS navigation. When Lee directs new OTTB buyers to the Turf Paradise backstretch, she provides them “a paragraph of instructions,” she said.

“He didn't ask for any instructions,” said Lee, about the driver. “He pulled right up to security and told them he needed to go in.”

Correct Course of Action

Initially, Bell told the TDN he had no memory of this aborted deal at Turf Paradise. “There's so many phone calls a day that go in and out,” he explained.

After sending Bell the cache of messages shared by Lee, he said he understood the horses to be “recipient” mares–those intended to host embryonic transfer pregnancies. Bell denied that he intended to purchase the horses for auction at Presidio.

“That's the God's honest truth. If I can find a place for them, I re-home them,” said Bell, adding how he sometimes tells frustrated owners who have fallen out of love with their horses that he will purchase their horses for slaughter as a ruse.

“I tell people I buy horses for slaughter, and most of the horses I buy don't go to slaughter,” he said, adding that he has a good record helping underfed horses and those that need careful management. “I just fix them, whatever's the matter with them, and I sell them back to the public.”

According to Bell, there's a financial incentive to finding horses new homes, as opposed to funneling them into the slaughter pipeline.

“You've got to get them over there. And the cost of getting them over there is [more] compared to if you just sell them here at the house. People need companion horses, so, I just sell it to them for what I'd get as a kill price and it breaks even,” said Bell.

“Here's the honest-to-God truth, I brought probably 50 or 60 kill horses in the last two months, and you want to know how many went to slaughter? Zero. I never even crossed the Arizona border with them,” Bell said.

Bell said that he and Lowe have been friends for years, and he has always known her to be a hard-working veterinarian known for dispensing veterinary care for free to financially precarious families.

“She does so much, so much for the community,” said Bell, dismissing criticism of Lowe's actions as a personally motivated vendetta. “How many vets do you know that will show up to people's houses that can't afford them and do the vet work for free because they want to save the animal?”

The incident occurred during a season at Turf Paradise marked by an aggressive interventionist approach by track vets that regulators say has led to a 50% reduction in equine fatalities. There were 38 pre-race inspection scratches during the last meet, which ended May 4. Out of 300 claims, 40 were voided.

Madeline Auerbach is vice president of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), which accredits, inspects and awards grants to approved aftercare organizations across the nation. Auerbach said that she is “beyond disappointed” with the chain of events.

“Are you telling me that we have regulatory vets that do not know the proper procedure?” Auerbach said, about the process of funneling ex-racers into good homes and second careers.

So, what is that proper procedure?

“I would call the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and ask them for assistance in making sure this horse went to a good home,” Auerbach said.

“That's what our job is, to know where these people are, to know where these places are,” Auerbach added. “Even if it's just to give that person a list of the rescues around there. And there are some good rescues in Arizona. You don't just go through word of mouth.”

According to HISA, the agency has no oversight authority over state-appointed veterinarians. Similarly, HISA's jurisdiction over “Covered Horses” currently ends when they've retired from the track. Nevertheless, the issue is on the agency's radar.

“The Authority has proposed a new rule to the Federal Trade Commission that would prohibit the exportation of Covered Horses for slaughter, and we are hopeful that this rule will be approved in the next several months,” HISA wrote.

As for Piper Rose, the mare at the heart of this story, hers is an ending seemingly free of recrimination. Lee said she has found a home for Piper Rose in Washington State with a family of barrel racers.

“She's going to be a barrel horse and have barrel babies,” Lee said. “They love her to death. They can't get over how classy she is. She's out there strutting her stuff out to grass, living her dream.”

Not a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the daily PDF or alerts.

Copy Article Link

Liked this article? Read more like this.

  1. National Thoroughbred League Releases '24 Schedule, Adds New Teams And Owners
  2. TAA to be On Site at Saratoga for Belmont Festival
  3. Filling The Aftercare Gaps In States Like Arizona
  4. Upbeat Outlook For Pleasanton As NorCal Hub Shifts Away From Closing Golden Gate
  5. Report: Turf Paradise Gets New Lease on Life
X

Never miss another story from the TDN

Click Here to sign up for a free subscription.