Rick Porter, owner of Fox Hill Farm and such standouts as Songbird, Havre de Grace, Hard Spun , Round Pond, Eight Belles, and Jostle, has created a group that aims to ensure the welfare of Thoroughbreds.
Porter formed the National Thoroughbred Welfare Organization, which will "pull from all available resources to be a comprehensive welfare organization that protects racing's greatest asset—the horse—for the overall benefit of the sport."
"In racing, we have many organizations and individuals who put forth much time, effort, and money into equine welfare, specifically retirement and retraining," Porter said. "In recent years we've seen the efforts grow through new organizations like the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, and tracks and sales companies getting involved with support of local rescue organizations. We've also seen the growth of many organizations and individuals using social media for their efforts.
"We commend all these efforts and owe a debt of gratitude for all that they have done and continue to do. What is missing, however, is a national industry organization, which can be pointed to as an all-encompassing equine welfare organization."
Porter believes society continues to grow more sensitive to animal welfare issues, and, unfortunately, Thoroughbred racing has been a step behind.
"For decades, the sight of a suffering horse on-track with a catastrophic breakdown has done its damage to the sport," he said. "In today's world, with 24-hour news and social media, Thoroughbred racing is under a microscope like never before. The sport takes a daily pummeling on social media due to our Thoroughbreds basically being extorted for hundreds or thousands of dollars to 'bail them out' of feedlots. A price and date are given, with the promise that the horse will be shipped to slaughter if these conditions aren't met.
"Racing simply cannot have any stance other than slaughter being an unacceptable end for its horses. We cannot be seen as an industry driven only by greed, which disposes of its horses that are no longer useful to an inhumane ending. Most of us are more responsible than to knowingly send our horses to slaughter, but the few who do cast a very damning shadow upon us all."
Through the efforts of the NTWO, Porter says the solution to the "feedlot extortion" problem is to secure discarded horses before they end up in the hands of feedlot owners and slaughter buyers. In the short term, this may require watching over the small auctions where these horses are funneled, and outbidding slaughter buyers. The long-term solution is to stop the pipeline flow at the source, which is at the track.
"No track should knowingly allow or turn a blind eye to trainers on their grounds who are turning over horses to potential slaughter," Porter said. "The tracks who allow this are doing a great disservice to the sport."
Porter said the NTWO plans to work with tracks, The Jockey Club, and state governing bodies to revoke licensing and registration abilities for those who knowingly engage in practices that result in their horses ending up in feedlots or at slaughter plants. The organization will offer local resources to trainers and owners as alternatives. It will be there to help owners and trainers who find themselves in a bad situation. Porter adds that it will not be used simply as a dumping ground for unethical and inhumane horsemen.
It is hoped that current, largely individual efforts can be consolidated on a national scale through the work of the NTWO. The organization will investigate claims of abuse and bring help to horses in need.
Another area in which the NTWO will work is on-track deaths.
"These events aren't just traumatic for the horse and their connections, but for fans," said Porter, whose filly Eight Belles suffered a fatal breakdown while pulling up after finishing second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1). "Just one incident can drive a fan away from the sport forever, or worse, (cause them to) become a vocal critic of the sport. We will never be able to prevent all on-track deaths, as some are truly unforeseen accidents, but we can certainly reduce their incidence, and our vigilance may keep fans from turning away from us."
The industry has made strides in this area. The Jockey Club Equine Injury Database reported a catastrophic breakdown rate of 2.00 per 1,000 starts in its first year, 2009. In 2016 that number had been reduced to 1.54 per 1,000 starts. The rate for the 2017 racing season is expected to be released this month.
Porter said the organization will monitor which horsemen have high breakdown rates.
"Horsemen are aware of their horses' issues, and make choices in how to deal with those issues, what activity they will require of the horse, and when they will stop on the horse," he said. "The conscientious horsemen will make wise choices that don't endanger the lives and limbs of the horses as well as the riders and all those who could be in the path of a fallen horse.
"When the data shows that certain horsemen have higher than normal on-track deaths or permanent maiming, then these horsemen aren't being as conscientious as they should be. They are playing Russian roulette with the lives of horses and riders. For these horsemen, racing is not for them, and we will again work with the tracks, local racing authorities, and The Jockey Club to invoke penalties including revocation of licenses for these horsemen."
As with all new projects, Porter envisions the organization will start slowly and gradually expand, starting with one region at a time and gathering successful ideas from those regions. To start, the NTWO will concentrate on kill pens in Louisiana.
Victoria Keith, executive vice president of Fox Hill Farm, got the ball rolling by going to one of the auctions to get a lay of the land and hopefully find the people to act as NTWO's agents in the state, covering the tracks and training centers.
"We're starting one area at a time," Keith said. "Louisiana has the most need, so we're starting there. We are looking to line up as many agents as needed to represent us at the tracks, training centers, and livestock auctions where they may be run through. The need for us to man the auctions should decrease over time as we get everyone on board with turning over their horses to us instead of slaughter buyers and their middlemen."