Once racing days are done, even major stakes winners can be killed
May 03, 2008 04:30 AM
The 20 horses competing in today's Kentucky Derby have spent the week being primped and pampered in their Churchill Downs stable digs, cameras fixed on every move, handlers mindful of every step they take: they are royalty on four legs.
If history is any guide, though, some Derby bluebloods will end up one day far away from the bright lights, in the cold, cruel surroundings of a slaughterhouse.
Take Ferdinand. The striking, well-bred son of Canadian-bred Nijinsky II won the Kentucky Derby in 1986 and his future seemed secure. He died in a slaughterhouse in Japan 16 years later, reportedly no longer attractive to breeders as a stallion.
Exceller, the only horse ever to beat two Triple Crown winners – Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup – died in a Swedish slaughterhouse in 1997. Phantom on Tour, sixth in the '97 Kentucky Derby, might have met a similar fate if rescue groups hadn't have stepped in.
It almost happened to Little Cliff, too. A Derby hopeful two years ago for owner Robert LaPenta and two-time Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito, who have Cool Coal Man in today's race, Little Cliff never panned out as a top horse and eventually slid down to the lower claiming ranks, changing hands several times. Despite a notation on his registration papers that he be returned to Zito after his final race, Little Cliff fell off the map – until April 7, when a thoroughbred rescue group member found him in a direct-to-kill waiting pen at the New Holland livestock auction in Pennsylvania.
The destination for Little Cliff's remains was Canada, where more and more horses are being butchered each day. With no more remaining slaughterhouses in the United States, Mexico is the only other country slaughtering American horses. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, seven licensed plants slaughter horses here. A spokesman at Cookstown Stockyards, an auction house north of Toronto, said that of about a dozen horses that may go through its sale a week, more than 30 per cent are typically racehorses.The appetite appears to be growing. Statistics Canada reports that in 2007, almost $70 million worth of horsemeat was shipped from Canada to countries such as France, Japan and Switzerland, an increase of 20 per cent over 2006. Numerous Toronto restaurants offer horsemeat on the menu – from horses raised like cattle in Quebec. At least one butcher shop located five minutes from Woodbine sells horsemeat imported from Calgary.
The horses arrive at the slaughterhouses through numerous auction/stockyard facilities, including several in Ontario that sell the occasional unwanted racehorse by the pound. The conditions in the vans transporting the horses are often atrocious: low-ceilinged and overcrowded. Veterinarians working with the CFIA inspect all horses delivered to slaughterhouses both before and after their deaths.
Members of the continent's horse racing industry are becoming vehemently pro-active about preserving equine athletes. In the last decade, the number of racehorse retirement, adoption, rescue programs and foster farms has quadrupled.
Animal advocacy groups in the U.S. are lobbying Congress for an American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. In Canada, the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition is working to introduce a private member's bill which would ban the slaughter of horses nationwide.
At Woodbine and Fort Erie, a precedent was set by granting a percentage of purses each year – one-quarter of 1 per cent, or about $200,000 – to LongRun Thoroughbred Retirement Society, a racehorse adoption and placement program based at Woodbine.
"Our mission is to work with owners and trainers and help them find homes for racehorses who have been injured or are no longer competitive," said LongRun founder Vicki Pappas.
"Horses are donated to us, we foster them and then they are adopted out. More than 250 horses have found homes through us (in nine years). We are fully supported by all organizations in racing in Ontario. We can't help all of them, but everyone does their part."
Some of the heroes that have gone through LongRun include Swamp Line, a stakes winner who made $175,000 for owner Robert Fisher but suffered a career-ending injury in his stall six years ago. Today, the dark bay gelding is living life as a ribbon-winning dressage horse for young, new owner Lesley Kahan.
Others, like Dawn Watcher, are simply just living a good life. An earner of nearly $500,000 and stakes-placed several times, Dawn Watcher last raced in June 2005. He had severe injuries from the rigours of continuous racing and slowly slipped down the claiming ladder. Donated by his owner to LongRun, the grey gelding is now romping through lush pastures of green grass at a foster home.
Alex Brown, whose website at Alex Brown Racing has formed the Fans of Barbaro forum, has saved more than 2,100 horses from slaughter and raised nearly $1 million. Just over a year after the death of popular 2006 Derby winner Barbaro, Brown is leading a grassroots anti-slaughter project.
A former Internet marketing professor with an MBA, Brown travels the world on his own dime doubling as an exercise rider for the world's leading trainer Steve Asmussen, who trains Derby second favourite Pyro. Brown is also a spokesperson for the banning of horse slaughter. He arrived at Woodbine with a string of Asmussen horses this spring.
"I worked in racing for 20 years. Two years ago, I didn't know anything about this," Brown said. "I think people don't understand what's happening."
Recently, he attended the Ontario Livestock Exchange auction in Waterloo where he saw one half-blind racehorse sold for slaughter – essentially, exiting the ring to a van that takes horses to the meat packers. Brown gave the horse a pat. Nothing more he could do.
"That's pretty up front; you don't sell by the pound for the show ring," Brown said. "They are being sold to be killed.
"What is disgusting is horses that have won some money for the owners, maybe some stakes, end up in these places. How many have we missed?"
Brown agrees that more people are talking and doing things about protecting racehorses after their careers end, but he says higher-profile folks need to get involved.
"From a PR standpoint, what we're doing is good. These are ordinary people raising money; we don't have any rich benefactors. But we're still losing horses. The claiming game allows them to slip through the cracks."
Zito's wife Kim will greet Little Cliff at their farm in Kentucky soon after the Derby. The horse has been in quarantine since being saved from the slaughterhouse.
"Nick and I were sick when we heard the story," Kim Zito said. "When we got over the initial shock of it, our sadness turned to anger. There are still some people in this game that don't care.
"The horse should be treated with dignity and respect. They fight with heart and soul so that we can become, rich, famous, successful and, hopefully, get that picture in the winner's circle.
"We need to have a little compassion and say, 'Thank you.' "