Leadership of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation on March 18 defended the organization from allegations that some horses were being neglected while under the care of the equine retirement program and said it was continuing to work to fulfill its mission.
During a teleconference to address a front page article in the New York Times, TRF chairman Tom Ludt said the organization “disputes many of the assumptions in the story.”
In the article, New York Times reporter Joe Drape cited specific farms under contract with TRF to care for their horses that were experiencing financial difficulties. In some instances, according to the article, horses had died as a result of malnutrition and some TRF contracted farms had not received payments for the care they were providing.
Much of the information for the article was obtained from a report compiled by a veterinarian hired by the estate of the late Paul Mellon, who operated the successful Rokeby Stable. The Mellon estate has set aside $5 million for the TRF.
Noting that it was not apparent in the Times article, Ludt and TRF president George Grayson said TRF endorsed the third-party inspection of its horses by the Mellon estate’s veterinarian, Dr. Stacey Huntington, because it would have been costly for the TRF to undertake the inspections itself. Both TRF officials said the organization’s staff members make periodic inspections of farms where TRF horses are located.
Ludt said conditions of some horses cited in Hutchinson’s report could be subject to interpretation, depending on the vet making the inspection. He said the article also did not take into account that some horses died due to the infirmities of age rather than neglect.
Specifically, Grayson and Ludt challenged characterizations in the Times article of Huntington’s inspection of horses at 4-H Farm in Oklahoma. The Times reported that the conditions of the 47 horses at the farm were so severe Huntington reported it to the local sheriff's department. The Times said three of the horses were considered to be "starving."
Ludt said Friday that one of those horses was a 24-year-old gelding with no teeth. He also said the description was inconsistent with a report from Dr. T. J. Loafman, a vet at the farm on behalf of TRF to supervise removal of the horses.
During the teleconference, Drape said he had an e-mail from Loafman that said the horses were “starving.”
Grayson said the vet’s report to TRF described those horses as “thin” but bright-eyed and in good health.
Grayson and Ludt acknowledged that TRF faces severe financial pressures as it continues to provide care for some 1,200 horses, many of which were brought under the TRF’s aegis during a growth period of 2001 through 2006.
The Times reported that TRF had a $1.2 million deficit for fiscal 2009, the latest year for which federal tax records were available. The newspaper said the inability of TRF to pay for care had led some farms to sever their relationships with TRF.
“We’re current through the end of the year, and we’re not proud that we haven’t been able to keep these farms current because it is a financial strain on them,” Ludt said. “But the communication continues to be that they’re doing what’s in the best interest of the horses, which is most important to us.
“As we have continued to communicate, fundraise, and promote the TRF mission, we have had financial pressures put on us due to the economy affecting the donation levels of the past, and the lack of total industry support which has caused pressure on the TRF and the satellite farms. We have continually worked with our satellite farms and have had great support from them. We always try to work hard at fulfilling our mission as we raise funds and support of our horses within our herd.”
Now, due to its financial strictures, the TRF is restricting the number of horses that it accepts into its retirement program, according to Grayson and Ludt. Ludt said a committee that reviews applications has set criteria on which horses can be accepted at the present time. He said the TRF is working with many of the other equine humane organizations to place horses that TRF is unable to accept.
Also, Ludt and Grayson cited financial considerations as the reason Larry Taylor, hired last year as the organization’s CEO as part of a restructuring, is no longer with the TRF. At the time he was appointed, TRF said Taylor, a retired tobacco industry executive and Thoroughbred farm owner, would oversee the TRF’s multi-farm operations, freeing up long-time executive Diana Pikulski to focus on fundraising.
Ludt said the volunteer TRF board had taken over the duties previously performed by Taylor and that Pikulski is still with the organization.
While they took issue with the New York Times article, Grayson and Ludt both said TRF had received many calls March 18 from individuals wanting to provide financial assistance or to help care for retired horses.
Ludt said there is a widespread misconception that TRF is adequately funded, ostensibly due to the Mellon financial support. He said, however, that TRF is restricted to being able to use a percentage of the Mellon funds, usually amounting to a maximum of $350,000 annually.
The TRF was founded in 1982 by Monique Koehler, who was honored with a 2009 Special Eclipse Award.