Can you protect a horse after you sell it? A panel of attorneys tried to answer that question at a panel Aug. 9 at the Saratoga Institute on Equine, Racing, and Gaming Law presented by the Government Law Center at Albany Law School.
While the lawyers offered a number of examples of ways in which laws can protect animals, particularly from going to slaughter, the answer to the question that gave its name to the panel seems to be "no," at least not in cases in which their owners and trainers are determined to discard them.
One of the primary mechanisms at racetracks' disposal to prevent horses from going to slaughter are house rules, which can enable racetracks to penalize owners and trainers that ship horses to kill auctions.
"Because most tracks are privately owned," said Peter Sacopulos of Sacopulos, Johnson and Sacopulos in Terre Haute, Ind., "they have their own house rules with lots of flexibility and power to enforce them." He offered examples of several racetracks, including Suffolk Downs and Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course, that had used their house rules to exclude racetrack personnel whose horses had been discovered headed to slaughter.
But Maggi Moss, an attorney who is also a long-time Thoroughbred owner, disputed the idea that the rules themselves are sufficient to protect horses. She said the presence of middlemen who act as buffers serve to protect irresponsible owners and trainers more than they protect horses.
Moss also accused the racing industry at all levels, from racetrack operators to regulatory agencies to industry organizations, of deliberating turning a blind eye to the horrors that horses face when they are sent to slaughter in Canada or Mexico.
"I have seen what is happening," Moss said, "and no one wants to talk about it."
Kathleen Reagan, a lawyer and co-founder and president of QueryHorse LLC, pointed out that language commonly used in Thoroughbred aftercare has no foundation in law and can't be enforced as such.
"You can't legally adopt a horse," she said. "The law treats horses and people and differently. Horses are goods under the law."
Instead, Reagan advised rescues and individuals to transfer animals in one of two ways: by transferring all the rights to the animal or to transfer use or possession of the animal for a period of time.
While Moss's advice was more pointed—"Don't give your horses to people you don't know"—her comments also suggested that the best way to safeguard horses against an unsavory end is to ensure that they are in the hands of responsible owners to begin with.
"It comes down to horsemen," panel moderator Nicholas Antenucci said. "Most slaughter cases are revealed by a tip, not by house rules or policies."