Holding fast to its zero tolerance policy toward horse slaughter, Suffolk Downs decided to ban five trainers who were involved—though all claim unknowingly--in an incident that violated the new code, which was instituted during the track’s 2007 meet.
Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer for East Boston, Mass., racetrack, said Nov. 13 officials received a call from an anonymous source a couple of weeks ago who suspected that five of Suffolk’s horses were en route to a livestock auction in New Holland, Pa. The facility is known for selling horses to slaughterhouse agents.
“We have a process in place to deal with unwanted horses at the end of the meet,” said Tuttle, referring to the track’s newly established retirement placement program. “The timeline for that process may not necessarily fit for everybody, but it’s very easy to ensure that this doesn’t happen, and the way to do that is to follow the process. What happened here was clearly that some of these individuals chose to do things differently, and the end result was not consistent with what we want to happen.”
According to witnesses and track officials, trainer Pam Pompell acquired the horses from other trainers Wayne Sargent Jr., Gerry LaFleur, and Tony D’Angelo. The horses--Tiny Target, Jimmy the Gov, Arrested Gatorgirl, Tercia de Reinas, and Storm Up Front--had all been unsuccessful in their careers and had been running in low-level races.
Sargent, LaFleur, and D’Angelo, who gave their horses away at no charge, thought Pompell was sending them to a farm to be retrained for other types of riding programs.
“We had no idea that those horses were going in that direction,” LaFleur said. “The people who took the horses were supposed to take them to a riding academy.”
LaFleur said he had made arrangements with Suffolk’s retirement program to take his filly, but officials at the organization told him he was welcome to find the filly another home before the end of the race meet if an opportunity should present itself. LaFleur was then approached by Pompell, who told him she would rest the filly until May, and then send her to a boys' camp.
LaFleur said he filled out seemingly official paperwork for the organization before he turned the filly over to Pompell, who allegedly arranged for Al Michelson, another trainer, to transport the horses to Chipaway Farm near Acushnet, Mass., about an hour away from Suffolk. Halfway to the farm, Michelson turned the horses over to Chipaway owner Dave Costa.
Both Pompell and Michelson claimed they were only reimbursed for fuel costs in exchange for the five horses and had no idea they would end up in a slaughter pen.
After getting word the horses were stabled at the New Holland auction Nov. 3, Sam Elliot, Suffolk’s vice president of racing, purchased the animals for $2,700 and arranged for them to be shipped to a Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation facility in Virginia. The track and the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association jointly shouldered the cost of the horses and shipping fees.
“The majority of the horsemen in our barn area work hard to (comply) with the accredited retirement programs,” Tuttle said of the track’s organization to find horses new homes when their racing careers have ended. “They take their responsibility seriously, so I’d like to think this doesn’t happen very often.”
Tuttle said the Suffolk retirement program humanely retired more than 40 horses to different organizations from its racing stables last year. There is no set timeline for how long the trainers will be banned from the track; Tuttle said they may consider the possibility of giving them stalls again at a later date.
“I’ve been at Suffolk Downs for 46 years and I’ve never done a thing like this in my life,” LaFleur said. “I give my horses away to reliable people all the time. This was a very innocent thing that happened, and they blew this so far out of proportion. Now they’ve ruined my name, and I don’t know if it’s going to ricochet into something bigger than that where (other tracks) refuse me stalls, or even my entries.
"I don’t know what’s going to happen. This is my future—my livelihood.”