The excitement of the upcoming third jewel of the Triple Crown highlights the shining careers of Thoroughbreds in their prime, but also conjures up the tender subject of what might happen to those runners once their careers have ended.
An astonishing figure of 70,000-100,000 horses are slaughtered each year and sent to foreign markets for human consumption, many without the knowledge of their former owners. On a conference call June 8, Chris Heyde, legislative representative of the National Horse Protection Coalition, revealed that about 17% of those horses are Thoroughbreds.
If passed, the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R. 503), will ban horse slaughter within the United States and prohibit the export of live horses for the same purpose. First introduced in 2002, the bill has failed to pass through Congress, but has continued to gain support, noted Heyde. This year, it has been picked up by three different Congressmen: John Sweeney (R-NY), John Spratt, Jr. (D-SC), and Ed Whitfield (R-KY).
Three of the known slaughter houses in the U.S. are the Texas-based Dallas Crown and Bletex Corporation, and Cavel International, which reopened two years ago in DeKalb, Ill. Between these operations, horse meat is exported to Belgium, Italy, Japan, and France.
"When you own a horse, it's your responsibility to care for that horse. We can control their conditions as human beings," said Gretchen Jackson, owner of Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Barbaro, who is recovering from a severe injury he sustained during the Preakness (gr. I).
Arthur Hancock, who bred and/or raced three Derby winners and owns Stone Farm near Paris, Ky., concurred with Jackson and warned Thoroughbred sellers to watch out for suspicious "killer buyers," who often use misleading information to coax people into selling their horses for cheap prices, after which they are vanned straight to the slaughterhouses.
In addition, thousands of horses are stolen each year, including two racehorses that were recently unlawfully taken from a barn at Thistledown to be sold on the slaughter market.
"I'm for outlawing the slaughter of horses because they're not bred for the food chain--they're companion animals. (Slaughtering) is a betrayal of trust," Hancock said. "It's a very vicious practice and it's not necessary," he added, pointing out the retirement farms across the county that are willing to give good homes to Thoroughbreds whose owners can no longer care for them.
New York-based trainer Nick Zito, who has been involved in the Thoroughbred business his entire life, noted that the outpouring of response to Barbaro's recovery showed the public's support of saving the horse.
"We need to have public debate on this issue," explained Zito of an important step in getting the bill passed. "We need to ask the other side why (slaughter) is a good thing."
"We basically have one individual blocking (H.R. 503)," Heyde said of Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), House agricultural committee chairman. One of Goodlatte's reasons behind opposing the bill is his belief that animal abuse will rise if slaughter houses are banned.
But abuse is already occurring, said Hancock, who has visited one of the slaughterhouses in person. "You can hear the horses screaming when they smell the blood," he said. It's a horrible, degrading, ruthless process."
According to the Society for Protective Animal Legislation website, "despite the federal mandate that horses be rendered unconscious before having their throats slit, repeated blows with captive bolt pistols are often necessary to stun the animals. Terrified horses writhe in the holding stalls (known as the 'kill box'), legs buckling under their weight after each traumatic, misguided, and ineffective blow to their heads."
"Every day the bill doesn't pass, large amounts of animals are suffering," said Heyde. "We must be careful not to confuse humane euthanization with horse slaughter."
Hyde urged those supporters of H.R. 503 to contact their state representatives and ask them to co-sponsor the legislation.