Genuine Joy and Regret

By Hallie McEvoy -- Outside of Upperville, Va., an elderly chestnut mare spends her days grazing and lazing. When the sun gets too hot, the aging beauty is brought inside to get away from the flies. On breezy, warm nights, she rests in grass-filled manicured pastures with other mares, enjoying life.

At age 26, she is retired as a broodmare. Her career as a mother was not stellar as she only had two living colts, neither of which ever raced. Many people would have sold or given away such a failed broodmare, but this is not just any horse.

Genuine Risk is now the oldest living Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner, and one of the eldest American classic champions alive. Her exploits on the track, as an unbeaten 2-year-old in 1979, to her Derby victory in 1980, and then her final win at Saratoga in August 1981, have permanently enshrined her in the hearts of horse racing fans and in racing's Hall of Fame.

Diana and Bert Firestone, Genuine Risk's owners, treat her as a member of the family and have ensured their champion will live out her days in peace and plenty. Unfortunately, such is not the fate of every racing legend.

In October 1978, Exceller, masterfully ridden by Willie Shoemaker, earned a unique distinction--he conquered both Seattle Slew and Affirmed, two Triple Crown winners, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), arguably one of the greatest races of the 20th century. Just 19 years later, Exceller was led to his death in a European slaughterhouse, because his career as a stud did not live up to the promise of glory his owners expected.

Exceller's death led to a flurry of retired Thoroughbred protection activities. The rallying cry of those concerned fans, breeders, owners, and trainers was "never again!" If only that had been the case.

This past month, The Blood-Horse released information that 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand likely met an untimely demise in a Japanese slaughterhouse. Details are still murky, but the bottom line is Ferdinand as a stud did not live up to his previous achievements on the track. That apparently was enough for his owners to discard and kill him, for the few yen it would bring.

The public and industry insiders have all responded with shock, anger, and disgust. How could this have happened again? Is this to be the fate of many horses we send overseas for breeding duties? Explanations aside, those of us who earn our living with these magnificent creatures, whether as owners, breeders, trainers, veterinarians, exercise riders, grooms, farriers, or even journalists, have a responsibility to end the slaughter of champions. There is only one way to accomplish this, by working together to ensure such horrific endings are a crime of the past for both champions and claimers, domestically and abroad.

With the number of Thoroughbreds born each year, it stands to reason many will need homes after their racing careers are over. Although several groups, such as the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and the Exceller Fund, are active in seeking new jobs for former racehorses, clearly more work is necessary. For every grateful 4-H or Pony Club rider who is mounted on a re-trained Thoroughbred, there are many horses that do not find such a happy ending.

It does, however, seem particularly cruel that an exceptional horse such as Ferdinand went to his death in a slaughterhouse, far from the land where he was born. If a Kentucky Derby winner can end up in such a gruesome situation, what chance does an ordinary retired Thoroughbred have?

In a bizarre twist, both Ferdinand and Exceller were trained by the late legendary horseman Charles Whittingham, a three-time Eclipse Award winner. I can only hope the great trainer met his old friends at the gates of heaven with the ever-present mints he kept in his pockets, and has these two champions back in his care. Both deserve no less.

As for the grand old Genuine Risk, her caretaker Buck Moore ensures that peppermints and carrots are used to spoil his charge. Unlike Ferdinand and Exceller, when Genuine Risk finally gallops to her final rest, it will be after a life of love and affection from those around her. She deserves no less.

Hallie McEvoy is an equestrian journalist who lives in Bolton Valley, Vt.