Because of difficulties getting a plane approved to transport needed food and supplies, the situation is turning dire for more than 800 horses stranded at Hipódromo Camarero in Puerto Rico.
While plenty of supplies have been mobilized, getting a plane approved for travel has been a problem, which has resulted in horses facing a food shortage on the devastated backstretch. While owners have been able to remove 52 horses from the grounds into quarantine, there are still more than 800 on the grounds and many of them need veterinary care.
Thoroughbred Charities of America executive director Erin Crady said 22 1/2 tons of feed is set to be shipped from Miami to Puerto Rico, but flights containing humanitarian aid have taken precedent, as the island has been reeling since being struck by Hurricane Maria Sept. 20. Much of Puerto Rico is without power and communications.
Jonathan Cutler of Ranch Aid, which assists in logistics and care for large animals in times of emergency, said food would be shipped by boat tomorrow out of Jacksonville, Fla., but it will take five to seven days to arrive. Ranch Aid is continuing work to try to secure a plane into San Juan International Airport.
"In 15 minutes, plans can change 15 times. We get bumped for any shipment that's related to human aid," Cutler said. Flight schedules are limited because the airport's radar is down and it is operating without air traffic control. Cutler said flights have to be coordinated through Miami or they will not be approved to land.
On the track grounds, Cutler said horses have been rationed food and water. He said their daily food intake was cut in half from normal earlier this week and at this point has been cut in half again, about one-quarter of what they would typically receive.
"At this point, it's just about sustaining life," Cutler said.
Shelley Gagnon-Blodgett of Caribbean Thoroughbred Aftercare has been working from Florida to coordinate efforts. With no power and very limited communications in Puerto Rico, Blodgett has used a satellite phone to stay in contact with CTA members on the island and at the track.
"We have tons of feed and tens of thousands of dollars for medical supplies, but getting the Federal Emergency Management Association to allow a plane to land has been the biggest challenge," Blodgett said.
It is most assuredly a disaster area with real human needs that must be treated and huge logistical problems.
"If you could think of a worst-case situation, multiply that by 100," Cutler said. "On the mainland, all of the different agencies are collaborating. ... We are attempting to logistically put everything in place. From a federal and local standpoint, we have all the different agencies striving to make assessments and open up channels. We're eight days into this disaster and it is a disaster unlike any other that they've ever dealt with. All of the agencies are being taxed in a very, very severe way."
Cutler also provided detail on why grazing on the track property is not an option.
"We're talking about winds that were so strong, it stripped trees and stripped grass," Cutler said. "It stripped grass off the infield. That's pretty powerful."
The CTA reports that some regular caretakers have been in to check on many of the horses, but they also have found some who appear to be abandoned, or perhaps their caretakers have been impacted by the storm and are unable to get to the track. Local residents can spend three to six hours waiting in lines for gas and there also are food lines.
Volunteers are caring for the horses. Cutler said these volunteers—"superheroes and rock stars"—are doing all they can to care for the horses. Some of that care has come from members of CTA, a local horse and pony club, and the Paso Fino Federation of America. He said many of the volunteers are putting aside their own needs to care for the horses in extremely humid weather that has made dehydration a problem for them.
"Some of these folks have lost their homes. They have lost power," Cutler said. "They don't even have gas to drive there."
Blodgett said vets who volunteered to help were allowed to apply for a 30-day license in order to treat horses, or other animals in need. Crady said they have $10,000 in veterinary supplies and equipment ready to ship when a plane becomes available.
So much has gone right in terms of attempting to assist the horses, including the TCA's Horses First Fund, established last year by LNJ Foxwoods to assist Thoroughbreds in need of emergency aid. That fund provided a grant to assist hundreds of racing and retired Thoroughbreds affected by Hurricane Irma, including in the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. The aid has been ready to go for Puerto Rico as well, but getting the assistance to the island remains an impediment.
Other than the 22 1/2 tons of feed from Nutrena Cargill ready to be shipped, Crady said another 22 1/2 tons is waiting right behind it. The TCA, CTA, and Ranch Aid have been busy for days trying to find a way of getting the food to the horses. Other options being considered include a smaller airport in Puerto Rico or flying the food to another island in the Carribean and then shipping it to Puerto Rico.