During my 11 years at this publication, nothing has inflamed readers as much as our recent story about the likely slaughterhouse death in Japan of 1986 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Ferdinand. There has been a flood of letters, faxes, and e-mails, most of them simply expressing personal anguish, others lashing out unfairly against Japanese breeders and the American owners who sell horses to them, still others offering sound and rational ideas about what can be done to prevent future occurrences.
Among the letters that arrived on my desk was one from Masayuki Takahashi, president and CEO of the Japan Racing Association, who wanted to offer reassurance that, if indeed Ferdinand died in a slaughterhouse, it was an extreme exception. Takahashi said the JRA had tried to learn exactly what happened to Ferdinand, but "we have not come to a successful conclusion on the current situation of the horse."
Takahashi attached a list accounting for 24 horses who either won a Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup race and were exported to Japan since 1980. All but Ferdinand and Sunday Silence are alive, according to the JRA. Unfortunately, the list only touches the surface of the many top stallions and broodmares imported into Japan while that country's breeding industry was booming and the West was going through a prolonged market slump. In the wake of Ferdinand's death, readers have asked about the fate of numerous horses, among them grade I winners and champions who apparently are no longer breeding in Japan.
The fact the JRA has stepped into the controversial matter is interesting. The governmental agency that operates the nation's major racetracks does not wield control over the breeding industry, though it can help determine its fate through economic incentives.
So why do JRA officials care about what may have happened to Ferdinand? Do they think American breeders will stop exporting horses to Japan? Doubtful. Are they concerned about their image in the United States? Perhaps. Are they worried the slaughter issue could come under greater scrutiny in Japan and cause harm to the JRA? Absolutely.
The slaughter of Thoroughbreds in Japan is something that has occurred under the radar screen there. It is simply not discussed. However, an incident of this nature could change all that and lead to public protests by animal rights activists. That would not be to the benefit of the JRA, which after years of growth is in the midst of a multi-year economic decline.
The attempted reassurance that American horses are not being slaughtered en masse is intended just as much for the Japanese racing public as it is for Americans. The JRA cannot afford a public relations disaster in its own country.
Rather than posture, however, the JRA should take a firm stand on the issue and work to ban the slaughter of Thoroughbreds in Japan. That is what a growing number of organizations in the United States are doing, including the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, and numerous state organizations. Individuals who support the ban on slaughter should contact their senators and representatives to let them know their position on the bill filed by Rep. John Sweeney of New York.
This is not to say all former racehorses and retired breeding animals will happily live out their days grazing in lush pastures. Japan has a serious land shortage, and there is the same economic challenge there that American owners and breeders face. Retirement and retraining operations remain the best alternative, but sufficient funds likely will never exist to support every retired runner or breeding animal.
The next best alternative, and a far better one than slaughter or the virtual abandonment that too many retirees experience, is euthanasia. It certainly is not a pleasant thought, but it represents a strong dose of reality for horse owners everywhere.