One solution to the problem is for the industry to take a closer look at what Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack in Farmington, New York has done. With the vision of a few caring people, in 2004 Finger Lakes created the first Thoroughbred adoption facility run as a collaborative effort between racetrack management and local horseman. They named it The Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Adoption Program (FLTAP), with a goal of safely retiring horses that raced at their track and then placing them in suitable homes. Since its inception, over 350 horses have been adopted.
In April 2008 the FLTAP took it one step further, as they opened their doors to Purple Haze Center, the first racetrack to build an adoption facility on its actual grounds. A 10,000 square foot structure designed with 16 stalls, an indoor exercise center, horse wash bay and support and storage areas, Purple Haze also includes a 14,000 square foot fenced paddock area on two acres of land. Built by private donations and funding from the state of New York, the facility is a temporary holding place where horses can live and receive the care they need before being adopted. Purple Haze is run by program manager Carly Tangney.
“We do a lot here – care for them, ride them, train them – pretty much everything the horses need until we can find them a home,” said Tangney, who started working for the FLTAP as an intern, but now works full time at Purple Haze. “We keep horses an average of about 30 days, but sometimes longer. The barns are always full. We can only take so many. There is a long waiting list – and we only accept horses from Finger Lakes. So you can see the need for more programs like this across the country.
“Aside from doing our part here, our goal is to get enough exposure so that other racetracks will see what we’re doing and join us in opening their own adoption facilities.”
Tangney says that despite the general perception that most of the unwanted horses that come to them are old and sick, the average age of a Purple Haze inhabitant is 3-6 years. Some come in with severe injuries and have to be immediately cared for by Dr. Margaret Ohlinger, who is the co-founder and executive director of the FLTAP, but most are just too slow to be racehorses or have relatively minor injuries that prohibit them from racing.
Tangney also says it cost about $10-15 per day to care for each horse, not including any needed surgery. They generate the money through fundraisers, auctions, grants and private donations. Finger Lakes also donates $1 for every starter at their meet, and the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protection Association of New York matches that.
“Shipping horses is expensive, so some owners are grateful for what we do,” Tangney said. “But there are still many that are sold and end up in the wrong hands. We can only do so much.”
With an estimated 100,000 unwanted horses around the country – many of which end up slaughtered – the need for more adoption facilities is obvious. It begs the question, why don’t all racetracks have similar programs?
“That’s a good question. I don’t know,” said Ohlinger, a racetrack veterinarian at Finger Lakes who co-founded the FLTAP with trainer Phyllis Shetron and horse owner Valerie Morrison. Last year, the FLTAP won the American Association of Equine Practitioners Equine Welfare Award, the Lavin Cup. “I’d like all racetracks to know that this is a very replicable process. We are a small racetrack, so if we can do it anyone can. It’s just a matter of people taking responsibility and caring.
“One of the things that made this possible for us is the management at Finger Lakes, which has been very supportive. They were made aware of the problem of unwanted horses and decided to help us do something about it. That’s the first step.
“But it’s not just management. The owners and breeders need to take more responsibility for their horses. So many people profit off them, it behooves everyone to do right by them. It’s the ethical thing to do. It pains me when owners wash their hands of their horses after they can no longer earn them a paycheck. Too many of them just put them on a trailer and they wind up at auction.”
For more information on the FLTAP and Purple Haze go to www.fingerlakestap.org.