ANGELS OF MERCY

Following is a fictionalized account based on a composite of actual cases.

Old School Tie (aka Preppy) was foaled on a farm in Central Kentucky. He was by a prolific stallion, with an annual crop of over 125 foals, and out of a well-bred dam with a nice race record. Preppy had good but not model conformation and brought $75,000 at a Keeneland yearling sale. He was gelded and later sent to Ocala, Florida, for basic training. Afterwards, as a 2-year-old, Preppy was shipped to a trainer in New York, where he ran poorly in several maiden races. When the New York circuit proved too much for his abilities, he was sold to an owner whose stable was headquartered at a less competitive track in the Midwest.

Five years later Preppy had raced 93 times, for six different owners and trainers, and had slipped to the bottom-level claiming ranks on the leaky-roof circuit. Preppy had won ten races in his career but was no longer able to compete, even at the lowest level. His last owner did not make any effort to find Preppy a good home (or at least euthanize him). After all, the owner was “running a business” and had to get any salvage value he could. Didn’t he?  Preppy was sent to the New Holland (so-called “killer”) Auction in Pennsylvania, where slaughterhouse operatives grimly garner their “work-in-process” inventory.

Story ending #1: Preppy was purchased by a slaughterhouse agent and sent to Mexico on a truck crowded with horses. There he met a harrowing end to his life in an executioner’s plant. Preppy had completed his odyssey that began with so much hope in the lush bluegrass of Kentucky and culminated in the detritus and stench of a factory of death. He had gone “from the stable to the table in seven days.”

Story ending #2: A volunteer from a racehorse retirement and rehabilitation center outbid the slaughterhouse buyer, paying with her own money, and took Preppy to the center for a new lease on life. Preppy was cared for by inmates from a local prison, who were themselves looking for another chance. Nine months later, Preppy-a trail horse now–went to live with a family that cherished him as though he were a Triple Crown winner. Preppy remained there until he died of natural causes at age 21.

Upwards of 43,000 Thoroughbred and Standardbred foals arrive each year in the United States. Add in foals from Quarter Horses bred to race, foals from foreign countries, foals from non-racing breeds, and foals from wild mustangs and the numbers mushroom. Many of these animals come to a degrading end to their existence, and run the gamut from Heinz 57-bred horses to blueblooded classic winners like Ferdinand and Exceller.

With so many foals being born annually, the rescue and rehabilitation facilities cannot save every abandoned or unwanted horse, any more than the animal shelters can save every unwanted cat and dog or guarantee a “no kill” policy. The people who run the horse retirement centers know, of course, that all they can really do is slow the tide, so to speak. But they act as though they can turn back a tsunami, for to think and act otherwise would be to give in to the futility of it all.

The Unwanted Horse Coalition is an alliance of equine groups and organizations, under the auspices of the American Horse Council, with the mission “to reduce the number of unwanted horses and to improve their welfare through education and the efforts of organizations committed to the health, safety, and responsible care and disposition of these horses.” According to the Coalition: ” No accurate figures document how many unwanted horses actually exist, their age and sex, the breeds represented, how many are purebred versus grade, their most recent use, their value or what happens to them in the long run. Tens of thousands of horses that could be classified as unwanted are being sent to processing facilities in the U.S., Canada and Mexico each year.”

Everyone who owns, trains, rides/drives or otherwise makes a living from horse racing should feel the tug of the retirement and rehab centers. Surely, the vast majority of participants in racing feel a lasting obligation to the animals who run their hearts out on their behalf. Commendably, some of the major organizations in racing, such as the auction companies, the  National Thoroughbred Racing Association, and the Standardbred Retirement Foundation, have instituted programs to foster racehorse adoption and to funnel monetary donations to rescue centers.  Additionally, a number of racetracks are denying racing privileges to trainers who are found to have sent their horses off to slaughter.  Some tracks are sponsoring adoption programs.

The late John A. Hettinger, founder of Blue Horse Charities, cut to the chase by pointing out that every unwanted horse that is sent to a slaughterhouse was once wanted: when they were acquired. For various reasons-boredom, lack of wherewithal, irresponsibility, and so on-the bloom wore off and an owner made a decision to cast off the acquisition.

It would be easy to write a scathing essay about people who abandon their horses to the killers and about the inhumanity of the slaughterhouses, especially in Mexico. But the dark human nature of the people who so dispose of their horses is unlikely to be changed by condemnation and entreaties.

Words are better devoted to lauding the works of the folks in the horse rescue, rehabilitation, and placement centers, who labor for long hours, in relative anonymity and for meager or no monetary compensation, to care for animals that can’t care for themselves. Raising funds and getting volunteers are continual chores and many of the centers are swamped with requests to take on more horse residents.

These Angels of Mercy merit a special place near the winged horse Pegasus, in the constellation between Cygnus and Aquarius…or eventually in a place even higher in the heavens.

Copyright (c) 2009 Horse Racing Business.

Postscript

Horse Racing Business has added a separate page called Angels of Mercy, which is an honor roll for individuals and organizations who deserve to be recognized for saving unwanted horses and giving them a dignified life.  New entries will be made on an ongoing basis.  Other websites that you can refer to for rescue-organization lisings are Blood-Horse Source and  GreenButGame.

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