Equine Retirement Programs (pt. III)

Jo Anne Normile raced horses at Great Lakes Downs near her home in Michigan while also serving as a board member of the Michigan Eventing Association. In 1997 a trainer approached her to take a look at a big gray gelding. "Isn't this the kind of horse those jumping people would like?" he asked. The next day another trainer led her to another horse, and within two months she had sold 50 head to "those jumping people." This was the start of the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses (CANTER), which today owns more than 20 rescue farms in seven states. Last year, CANTER found new homes for 232 horses.

"Not only do we give horsemen more money than they got from the meat guy, but they also know they're doing the right thing by the horse," Normile said. "And the buyers now get their pick of hundreds of horses--all with Jockey Club papers--for under $2,000. After I established a Web site, people were coming from Georgia and New York to buy horses. We've never sold less than 200 horses a year since, all off this little track.

"I have seen such a turnaround in the racing industry and I'm so proud of how we're challenging slaughter and taking responsibility for the horses," Normile added. "Up to a few years ago I would never use the word 'rescue' for fear nobody would want to deal with me. Now racing is throwing that word around. Our trainers are proud they've put the meat man out of business."

Out on the West Coast the California Equine Retirement Foundation started up under Grace Belcuore in 1986. Pegasus followed in 1991 under Helen Meredith. Gary Biszantz decided to do things on a bigger scale, and with the help of John Amerman bought 45 acres in Tehachapi that became Tranquility Farm, which today holds up to 100 horses.

Shon Wylie was working at Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky in 1996 when she met Lori Neagle, who was a board member of that state's Humane Society. They talked about creating a program for adoptable ex-racehorses, and trainers began seeking them out. The organization they began, ReRun, now adopts out 70-80 horses a year and is active in eight states.

"ReRun is set up so that we utilize outside people and pay them a small amount to keep the horses," said Wylie. "That way if funding gets tight, we can cut back on the number of horses we take in. We concentrate on adoptable horses who can have a second career under tack, and we accept horses as long as they can be rehabbed to be ridable."

As one might imagine, it takes money to pay people and upkeep facilities. Normile said CANTER's bare-bone costs are $200,000 annually, including surgery costs. Enter more angels.

Herb Moelis was a vice president of TRF from the beginning. To help the o rganization, he originally suggested a tag-on charge when owners registered a foal that would entitle that foal to lifetime retirement. That concept went nowhere.

"The next best idea was doing stallion seasons, so we started with that," Moelis said. "The first year we raised $15,000. A few years later, when we got to the $500,000 mark, I went to the TRF board and said we should set up a separate arm to help other organizations. That was vetoed. So I split off in 1996 and started Thoroughbred Charities of America with Allaire du Pont and my wife, Ellen, to help all the mom-and-pop organizations around the country that don't have the wherewithal to raise money."

Every December the Moelises host a stallion season and memorabilia auction at their Candyland Farm in Delaware, and 2003 marked the third consecutive year the auction raised better than $1 million. Du Pont's needlepoint work is highly sought out by bidders. Moelis said his group helps support about 100 nonprofit organizations annually.

John Hettinger approached the directors of the Fasig-Tipton sale company about a matching-gift charity that would match any consignor or buyer who devoted one-quarter of 1% of the hammer price of any horse sold. Today, Blue Horse Charities subsidizes the adoption of ex-racehorses and creates awareness on the issues of rescue and slaughter.

The group paid some 30 nonprofit organizations $150 per head for each of the nearly 800 horses those groups rescued in 2002. Hettinger has publicly criticized groups such as the American Association of Equine Practitioners, which opposes national legislation that would end slaughter because the bill has no provision for what to do with unwanted animals.

"More than 1,000 consignors and buyers participate in this program because they don't buy the self-serving, hypocritical rationalizations of some veterinary groups concerning slaughter," Hettinger said.

"There was a story years back about a horseplayer at Suffolk Downs who used his winnings to buy two old horses who were headed for the killers. He said, 'I don't feel I'm doing anything noble. I wonder why I haven't been doing this for a long time.' And that's exactly the way I feel."

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