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Saratoga Summit Focuses On Racehorse Retirement

Lucas Willard

With the racetrack dark for the day, leaders in New York's horse racing industry assembled in Saratoga Springs to discuss the retirement of thoroughbreds – a topic that has long been the subject of equine advocates.

Most of the talk during the summer meet focuses on stakes races, upsets and exactas. But the daylong Retired Racehorse Summit at the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion, hosted by the New York State Gaming Commission, aimed to clarify what happens to horses when their racing days are done.

Robert Williams, Executive Director of the commission, said the meeting is intended to raise the profile of an issue that has often fallen under the radar.

“The commission has long professed that responsible stewardship of the horse includes factoring in the entire life cycle and ensuring these athletes have viable options once their racing careers are over.”

Perhaps one of the most shocking stories related to thoroughbred retirement is that of Ferdinand – the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner reportedly sent to slaughter in 2002 after living on a Japanese stud farm.

Since then advocates have called on leaders in Washington to approve a national ban on horse slaughter.

Williams said in New York the commission is limited in its ability to care for horses but has brought actions against the licenses of owners who have mistreated horses.

Jack Knowlton of Sackatoga Stables, the organization that owns 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Funny Cide, served on the state appointed task force on racehorse retirement from 2005 to 2011.

That task force released a report at the end of 2011 that has been used to provide recommendations on how to care for retired horses. Knowlton said the report today is guiding research on the population and whereabouts of retired New York-breds.

“The ultimate goal of this is to provide the thoroughbred industry with the following information; where do horses go after the track? How many have second careers? How many are shipped out of the country? How many cannot be found?”

Since the publication of the report, New York now has an appointed equine medical director, Scott Palmer at Cornell University. Palmer performs necropsies on deceased race horses and submits results to a mortality review board.

One of a handful of the day’s panel discussions focused on the current status of retirement initiatives and programs in New York.

Rick Schosberg is in charge of Take The Lead, a program by the New York Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association that finds homes for horses retiring from New York Racing Association tracks and is on track to serve its 150th horse.

He says he tells all of his staff, current, and prospective owners a simple message to ensure a healthy future: start with the animal’s welfare.

“Whether it’s running in a race that you may or may not want to run in, or whether you have an injury and think it’s time to stop. Just start with the wellness of the horse. All of the rest of it will fall into place. And I think the industry can take that as an example to really get down to the nuts and bolts of it.”

A healthy horse is also less expensive to care for in retirement.

David Brown of the Finger Lakes Horsemen’s Association says while healthy horses may be able to find a second career in horse shows or on a polo team, limited resources make it difficult to rehabilitate and find a home for injured horses.

“There’s always outlets, but for the horse that’s disabled, that’s seriously disabled, we haven’t benefitted that population at all, and that’s a real need.”

Rick Violette Jr., head of the New York Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association, says steady funding remains a challenge for programs at large. 

“In this industry we tend to keep going to the same people for a handout – the same very philanthropic people - whether it’s to help the backside, whether it’s for research, whether it’s for the retirement of horses. You wear out people. While we still have to go there, we have to find some standardized funding.”

Violette said he’d also like to see more accredited facilities in New York to care for the horses.

“We just don’t want to get horses off the books and never see  them again just because they’re out of sight, they’re out of mind. They need to be at these facilities that pass muster and continue to pass muster.”

Discussions at the Retired Racehorse Summit also went into more detail about different approaches to aftercare, how the Standardbred industry addresses retirement, and the current status of accredited organizations.

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