New York government would involve itself in the inspection and accreditation of facilities that take in retired racehorses, but one legislator believes the industry should devise such a program and decide how it would be funded.
Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, who chairs the Assembly Racing Committee, said the state thus far has taken no action on the issue, but he indicated the time is coming. Pretlow was one of many speakers Aug. 14 during the first day of the Saratoga Institute on Racing and Gaming Law presented by the Albany Law School in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
"Should the state dictate to you what you should do for your horses?" Pretlow said. "I personally feel this should be an industry-driven exercise. I do agree something needs to be done for the ethical treatment of horses. The problem is, there will always be unintended consequences."
Pretlow cited what he called "rough numbers" showing about 1,300-1,500 Thoroughbred foals are born each year in New York, and about 1,000 never race. He said it would take approximately $9 million over time to house and care for 20,000 retired racehorses; the amount of money needed would about double when Standardbreds are included.
"The state would definitely have to get involved in the inspection of the facilities," Pretlow said. "All of us are looking at what's in the interest of the horse. But if the (industry) doesn't do it, the state will step in, and the state is usually heavy-handed."
A task force on retired racehorses in New York put together a comprehensive report that was released late last year. It recommended that all New York racetracks contribute 1% of video lottery terminal commissions to retirement efforts.
Based on 2010 commissions and projections for the Aqueduct VLT casino, about $3.1 million a year would be raised. The task force also called for racetracks and horsemen to contribute one-half of 1% purses, which would bring the total amount to more than $5 million a year.
No action has been taken on that front, though organizations such as the Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Adoption Program, known as the Purple Haze Center, have been successful in finding homes for horses. The program at Finger Lakes Casino & Racetrack has a dedicated funding source, something called a key to success for any such program.
In speaking about the New York task force, Diana Pikulski, executive director of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, said the goal was to develop a model not only for New York, but the entire country.
"Funding of course is a major issue here," Pikulski said. "The debate was whether it should be voluntary or mandatory. The discussion (about care of retired horses) has come a long way in 30 years, but the money has not."
Dr. Scott Palmer, director of the New Jersey Equine Clinic and past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, said the industry must do a better job implementing recommendations, educating horse owners, and setting realistic goals.
"We're talking about a cultural change," Palmer said. "It's very difficult, and you can't legislate it. I don't mean to be blunt, but 72% of 1,800 (retired horses) are lame, and that's a death sentence in this business. Money is a big problem, and some racehorse owners are confronted with, 'Oh my God, what do I do with this horse.' "
Palmer said not enough has been done exploring the option of euthanasia, which he called "the 800-pound gorilla no one wants to talk about." He said care facilities can't be overloaded with lame horses, and euthanasia is an option for horses after all other avenues have been explored.
"There needs to be legitimate criteria for what constitutes the need for euthanasia," Palmer said. "This is something that needs to be thought about and talked about. It's a very difficult subject and it's hard to understand."
Pikulski disagreed, saying euthanasia has generated bad public relations for the struggling Greyhound industry and suggesting Thoroughbred racing couldn't withstand the scrutiny. She said if horse racing could show it can take responsibility for retired horses, the publicity would be "incredibly good."
Ronald Perez Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Columbia-Greene Humane Society in New York, said policing horse care has become a major challenge. He said there used to be 10 homes lined up to take in one horse, but factors such as involvement by novices, commercial breeding, and expenses have changed the landscape.
"My goal now is to try to walk people (through horse ownership and care)," Perez said. "We're not an extremist organization. People with good intentions don't realize (how difficult caring for horses is). The environment is becoming a big issue for us. There are people who don't know when to say enough is enough, and they don't have the funds (to care for horses)."
The conference continued throughout the afternoon of Aug. 14 with discussions on horse ownership responsibilities and the legality of anti-slaughter policies.