By Teresa Genaro
This year's Albany Law School Institute on Racing and Gaming Law devoted a full day to matters of equine health, focusing primarily on Thoroughbred retirement and aftercare.
On Aug. 15, veterinarians, horse owners, politicians, equine welfare advocates, racetrack management, horsemen, and aftercare organization representatives spoke on panels on a variety of welfare issues. They included a report prepared by the New York State Task Force on retired horses; certification and inspection of breeding farms, sanctuaries, and rescue centers; recognizing inhumane treatment; and racetrack safety.
Despite the name of the program, which offers continuing legal education credits, the day was short on legalities and long on anecdotes, with representatives from a variety of aftercare organizations describing the services they offer, their successes, and their challenges.
Unsurprisingly, the two biggest problems racing aftercare programs deal with are a surplus of horses and a lack of funding. While much of the racing industry is concerned about the effects of a declining horse population on racing and breeding, as far as aftercare organizations are concerned, there are still too many horses, even with a foal crop that has declined by a third in recent years.
David Brown, president of the Finger Lakes Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said the Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Adoption Program, which is funded by a combination of private donations and a percentage of purse money, has room for 18 horses at a time. He estimated 150-200 horses leave the Finger Lakes backside each year, many of which are not sound enough for re-training.
"We can't take horses with significant problems," he said.
Other organizations face similar challenges. Dr. Scott Palmer, a past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the chair of the task force investigating the breakdowns at Aqueduct Racetrack last winter, noted that in 2007, approximately 1,800 race horse retired, 78% of which were lame.
"That's a death sentence in the retirement business," he said.
There was general consensus among participants that financial responsibility for Thoroughbreds that have finished racing needs to be shared among all racing entities, including breeders, trainers, owners, jockeys, and gamblers. Several racing organizations have already instituted programs designed to ensure a steady funding stream that doesn't rely on donations.
Turning For Home, the Parx-based program headed by Barbara Luna, receives a set amount from jockey fees and purses; owners pay $10 per start. She said once horsemen learn about the re-training and adoption program, their objections to the contributions generally cease.
Among the most forceful of the participants was Kraig Kulikowski, a veterinarian and horse owner, who called for reducing "equine unemployment" after a racetrack career. Acknowledging the cost of re-training horses after they leave the track, he suggested that a $2,400 fee accompany the registration of a horse for racing, an amount he estimated as the minimum cost of working with a horse for six months after retirement.
"If you don't want to ask this of breeders," he said, "you put their wallet first and horse welfare second."
The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, formed by a group of Thoroughbred industry stakeholders in 2011 and headed by prominent owner Jack Wolf, is designed to create a system to share financial responsibility for aftercare among "anyone who has a stake" in racing. Its executive director, Michael Ziegler, called for "automatic institutional contributions" from groups such as veterinarians, breeders, sales companies, racetracks, and horsemen, saying the goal is to gather a "small fair share" from each group so that no one entity faces an onerous financial burden.
Admitting that the TAA is making slower progress than expected on these contributions, Ziegler nevertheless said that he hoped to make a "significant announcement" about aftercare funding in the near future.
Trainer Rick Violette, president of New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, is on the TAA board. "A lot of time, the aftercare of horses ends up with the end user," he said. "A lot of times, they're the ones least able to care for the horse."
While panelists may not have agreed with where funding for a Thoroughbred's aftercare should come from, there was consensus about the need to take responsibility for the entirety of its life.
Said Violette, "We are responsible for all of the horses that bless our lives."