When the Seabiscuit movie character, trainer Tom Smith, says every horse is good for something, I don't think he meant as dog food. But that, apparently, is what eventually happened to North America's 1987 Horse of the Year, Ferdinand, when the people who owned him in Japan gave up on him as a stallion.
Dell Hancock, who saw Ferdinand as a baby roaming the fields of her family's Claiborne Farm in Kentucky and then watched with pride as the grandson of Northern Dancer won the 1986 Kentucky Derby (gr. I), had a very natural reaction to the news: "That's just disgusting," she said, the anger in her voice unmistakable. Pick your own descriptive term: 'revolting' and 'heartbreaking' are two that quickly come to mind. Frankly, the thought of Ferdinand being loaded onto a slaughterhouse-bound trailer with other horses at the end of what was considered their useful life is enough to make me sick.
For Ferdinand, the end came in Japan, where he was highly sought as a stallion after his stud career in the U.S. fizzled. But he failed at stud there, too, and his new owners treated him like a commodity.
But Ferdinand was a member of equine royalty. A son of the great English champion Nijinsky II, he was the horse who filled in the empty section of trainer Charlie Whittingham's résumé under the heading Kentucky Derby winners. He was Bill Shoemaker's last hurrah in the Derby, coming from dead last after trouble early, then darting through an opening along the rail in upper stretch to win convincingly.
Perhaps he wasn't the most honest horse. He lost nose decisions in the Strub Stakes (gr. I) and Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) early in his 4-year-old season, with Snow Chief and Broad Brush, respectively, getting the victories. By year's end, however, Whittingham and The Shoe had the horse figured out: he had to be ridden carefully so he would take the lead right before the wire and not have enough time to pull up and let someone else pass him. Shoemaker did so beautifully in the 1987 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) at Hollywood Park, allowing Ferdinand to gallop alongside Alysheba until frantically asking him for his best in the final yards. Replays of the race showed the outcome never was in much doubt, though the final margin was just a nose. Of course, Alysheba got the best of Ferdinand twice the following year, and then took the Breeders' Cup Classic to be 1988 Horse of the Year.
Ferdinand is the first Kentucky Derby winner and Horse of the Year believed to have his life ended in a slaughterhouse. Chances are, unless changes are made, he won't be the last. Several other Derby winners and former champions have been sent abroad after their stallion careers fizzled out here. Kim Zito, the wife of trainer Nick Zito, is trying to bring 1991 Derby winner Strike the Gold back from Turkey after being told he could end up on someone's dinner plate, the way the outstanding runner and former stallion Exceller did in Europe several years ago.
But who are we to tell the Japanese or anyone else how they should discard the horses we once loved? Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. Slaughter is legal in the United States, and there is nothing that would guarantee Ferdinand would not have ended up in one of the slaughtering plants here if he fell into the wrong hands.
Dell Hancock felt a sense of helplessness about Ferdinand's plight, knowing that Americans can't change the culture or laws of another society. But they can change the laws in this country, she said. "There is nothing anyone can do now except support John Hettinger's efforts to stop the slaughter of Thoroughbreds in this country."