The Pensioner

By John Russell -- The Thoroughbred industry can take credit for its many charitable contributions, by some accounts donating more money to more diverse causes than any other sport in this country. But despite the generosity of the sport at large, the funds directed toward the survival, care, and rehabilitation of most of the horses that are no longer wanted on the racetrack or in the breeding shed are relatively small.

Without the generosity of a handful of concerned individuals and institutions, the inhumane slaughter of Thoroughbreds would be even greater than it is. Fortunately there are farms across the country that are not only dedicated to the care of these horses, but also provide ancillary community services for other segments of society as well.

The programs for the rescue of horses are generally under-funded, and despite some facilities becoming valuable assets within their communities, unfortunately others have been inadequate and even exploitative. As a result, many became concerned about the proliferation of dumping grounds for equine detritus compromising the fund-raising efforts of worthwhile organizations. Thus the Thoroughbred Adoption and Retirement Association (TARA) was created.

The Eastern U.S. is represented with retirement farms operating under the auspices of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. While the umbrella of the TRF is serving many racing jurisdictions, its long arm has not extended to California, where there are now three facilities that are accredited by TARA: Tranquility Farm, the California Equine Retirement Foundation, and the Glen Ellen Vocational Academy.

But who is underwriting these organizations? The answer is very few people and very little money. In fiscal 2001-02, California's unclaimed refunds and uncashed pari-mutuel tickets amounted to more than $5.2 million, of which about half was retained by the state and the remainder went to the jockeys' health and welfare program and the horsemen's health and welfare fund. One cannot dispute the need for underwriting benefits to horsemen and jockeys, although the programs in California are not commonplace throughout the industry. Retired racehorses were left out in the cold; not a penny went for their welfare.

The six major California racing associations' charity racing days generate about $1 million a year, of which 50% must be returned to racing industry charitable programs as mandated by law. Despite this significant amount of money assigned to racing's charitable functions, there is still a huge amount donated to charities that have absolutely nothing to do with racing, yet not a single dollar is assigned to underwrite the welfare of the racehorses that put on the show.

To help dispel a public perception that Thoroughbred racing is cruel and the industry preoccupied with financial gain, the sport should be concerned about indigent horses. Legislation committing funds for the preservation of California's racehorse retirement programs is essential. Last year, from a pari-mutuel pool of $4.03 billion, the tracks and horsemen earned $333.2 million. It is tragic if a small fraction could not be dedicated to relieve the plight of horses used to generate this enormous amount of money. As an alternative, or in addition, funding could come from the following sources:

-- The state's approximately $2.6 million share of uncashed tickets and refunds: 15% or approximately $390,000.

-- The California tracks' contributions of approximately $1 million earned by charity racing days: 15% or approximately $150,000.

-- Breeder and stallion awards of about $14 million derived from wagering: 1% or approximately $140,000.

-- A tax on approximately $46 million of claimed horses, the largest proportion of which need care and support in retirement: 0.2% or approximately $92,000.

There is a way to address a serious public-relations problem while simultaneously generating enough money to humanely care for most of the horses within the state. Money could be distributed to facilities accredited by TARA, prorated for each facility by the average number of horses cared for, with a stipulation that no more than a specified number of horses should be exceeded per acre of dedicated land. It is past time for the industry to rise to this challenge.

John Russell is a retired trainer living in Southern California. He is a Tranquility Farm board member.