The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF), the nation's largest organization providing homes for retired and injured racehorses, has received a $5 million endowment gift from the estate of horseman Paul Mellon. And according to TRF president John Stuart, that amount represents just the beginning of a major funding drive.
"Gifts like this grow an organization, legitimize it," Stuart said. "We're hoping to match that sum over the next year. As we take in more horses, our expenses go up. This is a big problem, one that will cost several million dollars a year if we're to continue to do it right." In 2000, the TRF operated on a budget of around $750,000.
The TRF was started in 1982 by Monique Kohler, and in just the past two years, has grown from one facility at the Wallkill Correctional Facility in upstate New York to five major centers in Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, and the newly opened complex at the Marion County Correctional Institute in Ocala, Fla. In addition, TRF runs smaller farms in 11 states from New England to Wisconsin.
Currently the organization has some 350 horses in its care, and estimates that number will grow by at least 100 per year. The TRF plans to invest the lion's share of the $5 million. Under terms of the endowment, the TRF would be able to spend 5% of the market value of the gift per year. But "we're not planning to use it," according to Stuart. "We're going to operate as normal. We won't be building things. The money we're going to spend will be to feed horses.
"Not all our horses can be recycled. If a horse breaks his leg and isn't going to be able to become a jumper, that's an expense. That horse will be with us a long time. The horses from Greentree Farm, including Bowl Game, we've been feeding those guys for six years now."
The TRF is involved in several new programs around the country wherein it works closely with racetracks to save at-risk horses from the slaughterhouse. At Charles Town Races in West Virginia, for instance, the TRF gives trainers a credit in their horsemen's account if they sell a horse to TRF rather than to killers. And Magna Entertainment head Frank Stronach has just announced a program to provide a barn at each one of his racetracks to take care of at-risk horses. A retired trainer, overseeing a workforce of at-risk juveniles, will staff the barn. The program, which will see the TRF working with Magna, will begin at Gulfstream Park, where a fundraiser is scheduled for late February.
The TRF's goal is to have someone on each backside of every racetrack in the country so when a horse breaks down, its trainer can bring it to a designated barn or stalls instead of passing it on to the slaughterhouse. Although one likes to think that trainers care about their horses enough to do the right thing, that's not always the case.
"Owners and breeders who have no concern about their horses should consider that Massachusetts came very close to banning Greyhound racing in November because of stories that came out about what happened to the dogs after they broke down," said Stuart. "In England, the House of Commons just voted down something as traditional as fox hunting. There is a big animal activist movement going on around the world, and when they come after horse racing we ought to be able to say we're doing something about this problem."
Further recognition of saving horses comes in the form of the Special Eclipse Award given to John Hettinger, head of Fasig-Tipton. Less than two years ago, Hettinger's R&R Stables went around to sales and bought any horse who didn't bring at least $700 at auction, keeping the animals out of the hands of the killers. Through his work, there is now a minimum $999 reserve on every horse at most large auctions.
Hettinger also helped raise some $75,000 to start an 800 hotline at National Thoroughbred Racing Association Charities, which has also been used to hire staff that can tell callers the best place to send a horse.
As a residual benefit, the TRF farms are often affiliated with correctional institutions, giving inmates a chance to not only learn a marketable skill, but to build their self-esteem and pride. After just 18 months of operation, the Blackburn facility in Lexington has had five former inmates procure jobs in the horse business.