Slaughter Awaits Former Racehorses
PARIS, Ky. (AP) _ Rocking Josh was a strapping horse, a Kentucky-bred chestnut gelding more than 17 hands high with a white blaze on his forehead and a stride that went on forever.
But more impressive than his looks was his work ethic. ``Hardknocking,″ trainers called him. ``An old campaigner.″ ``Honest.″
In 108 starts, Josh won 23 and finished in the money 60 percent of the time. He earned his owners nearly $600,000.
``Everybody made money with Rocking Josh,″ said Richard Frankel, a Long Island, N.Y., bloodstock agent who put Josh’s photo on his business card after the horse fulfilled his 20-year dream of winning at Saratoga. ``Every time he ran, he’d try his heart out. I mean he had a heart like a lion.″
But that wasn’t enough to guarantee Josh a cushy retirement. After an eight-year career, unable to stand at stud and with a right front ankle swollen to the size of a melon, he was turned out in April in a dirt paddock in Maryland.
When former trainers Scott and Kerry Posey found him on an unbearably hot July day, Josh’s ribs were protruding and the hair on his back, once lovingly brushed, was falling out from sweat rot.
``I was in tears when I saw him,″ Mrs. Posey said.
Even so, Josh was luckier than many thoroughbreds.
As many as 7,100 registered thoroughbreds went to slaughter last year in the United States, 10 percent of all horses slaughtered, according to the Humane Society of the United States. That is equivalent to 22 percent of the 1998 U.S. thoroughbred foal crop.
It is a side of the ``sport of kings″ that most fans do not see _ where animals that fail to live up their owners’ dreams end their days neglected or on ``killer vans,″ worth no more than their price per pound.
``We’re buying very expensive lottery tickets,″ said Dr. Alan Furst, a racehorse owner and president of the New Jersey-based Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. ``Same as a losing ticket, you rip it up and throw it away. And racing is doing that.″
Last year, only 20 percent of racehorses earned their keep in winnings, according to the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.
Of 36,500 thoroughbred foals expected to be registered by The Jockey Club this year, about one-third will never race, the industry said. Of those that do, 67 percent of the fillies and mares, and only 7 percent of the males, will have post-racing breeding careers.
``I honestly believe that ... if only the rich can afford to do it and do it right, then it should be the sport of kings,″ said Shon Wylie, president of ReRun Inc., a Kentucky-based group that rehabilitates and places retired thoroughbreds.
When the thoroughbred Exceller was inducted into the National Racing Museum’s Hall of Fame this year, no one at the ceremony mentioned his sad fate, revealed by the Daily Racing Form: Exceller had wound up in a Swedish slaughterhouse.
The $112-billion-a-year thoroughbred industry has established funds to provide benefits for jockeys, breeders and even backstretch workers. But although some tracks, individuals and racing organizations contribute generously to horse retirement programs _ including prison-based farms opening this month in Kentucky and soon in Florida _ it is left to private organizations to rescue and place retired thoroughbreds.
In thoroughbred racing, there are two worlds. One of them belongs to horses like Secretariat.
Behind the main office at Claiborne Farm in Paris, two rows of moss-speckled Kentucky limestone grave markers face each other in a lush green plot enclosed by a stone fence. This is racing’s Valhalla.
Names on the stones, some adorned with a long-stemmed red rose: Roundtable, Nijinsky II, Sir Galahad III, Mr. Prospector, Swale, Secretariat.
``A horse that has been good to us, we’re going to remain good to him _ even in death,″ John Sosby, Claiborne’s manager, said.
But for most thoroughbreds, like Josh, there is another world _ one in which they may change hands as often as every 25 days. These are the second-tier racehorses of the claiming ranks.
In a claiming race, any horse entered can be bought on the spot for a predetermined price by any licensed trainer or owner. At the smaller tracks, and during the winter at the big tracks, up to 80 percent of races run are claiming races.
Occasionally, the two worlds collide, producing a Cinderella tale, like that of Charismatic, the 1999 Kentucky Derby winner, who had been a two-time claimer; or a horror story, like Exceller’s.
Many of the animals that don’t make it on the track or in the breeding barns end up in one of the four remaining U.S. facilities that slaughter horses for human consumption abroad.
For these horses, the end of a racing career starts with a long ride in a cattle car, sometimes hundreds of miles with no food or water. At the slaughterhouse, they are stunned with an electric shock or, more commonly, a blow to the head with a steel spike, then hung upside down and slit open. Thus, a horse like Exceller _ who won nearly $1.7 million in races _ sells for between $500 and $800 at slaughter.
Some that escape slaughter end up with people like Shon and Jerry Wylie.
At a farm just down the road from Claiborne, horses mill around in a paddock that the Wylies refer to as ``the hopeless cripples area.″
As the couple approach the fence, Amain, a copper-colored gelding, hobbles over for a handful of ice chips from Jerry Wylie’s cup. His wife points to the horse’s ankle, which looks like a stocking with a softball shoved down into it.
The Wylies rehabilitate horses and try to place them in appropriate settings. If a horse is too lame for riding, they try to find someone who is just looking for a companion. ReRun’s adoption fee, at $800, is set high enough to keep a prospective ``killer″ from making a profit.
The Wylies lament what economics have done to their sport.
Maintenance costs _ $45 to $150 a day for a horse in training _ rise faster than purses, encouraging trainers to run horses more frequently. Changes in the tax laws have made it harder to write off losses. Drugs to enhance performance or hide pain only make matters worse, they say.
Jerry Wylie said his father fed the family on income from training and running a few horses of his own. But he said those days are over.
``Say you’re a 10-millionaire; it can make a millionaire out of you,″ he says. ``You’ll lose $9 million and never have that one good horse that you’re looking for.″
One good horse. That’s what many called Rocking Josh.
Born in 1989 in Stamping Ground, in the Bluegrass area north of Lexington, he was aptly named because of his habit of rocking side to side in his stall.
Tom Patton came from Ontario, Canada, to Lexington’s Fasig-Tipton October yearling sale and left with a few horses. But when he got home, he couldn’t stop thinking about the one he didn’t get.
``I liked the look of him,″ he said of Josh. ``He had a lovely big back end on him.″
Patton called Kentucky and bought Josh over the phone for about $10,000.
Josh spent his 2-year-old season giving Patton’s children rides around the farm, then began running claiming races at Woodbine and Greenwood, two Toronto tracks. Patton ran Josh 21 times and lost him in a $35,000 claimer in 1993.
Over the next few years, Josh changed hands several times. He moved to the New York circuit, rising to $100,000 claiming races. He even won a couple of allowance races, once finishing second to 1993 Derby winner Sea Hero.
But Josh was ``a notch below truly good horses,″ trainer Cynthia Reese, who had him for three months in 1995, said. ``He won ... basically the hard route, kind of the working man’s route of just picking up money in all the races he ran.″
Josh moved to the Maryland circuit and won a couple more races, but his ankle was bothering him. When Josh broke down March 19 of this year, after finishing fourth in a $5,000 claimer at Maryland’s Laurel Race Course, many thought the 10-year-old had had enough.
``He should not have raced in that race,″ said Annette Eubanks, who had owned Josh briefly in the fall of 1998. ``The horse had a heart as big as a barn, but he was definitely lame.″
But to her amazement, trainer Ted Holder took Josh to Canada, thinking he could stage a comeback with the lower purses and lesser competition. ``You’re hoping that the horse comes around,″ Holder said.
So Josh found himself back where he started _ in Toronto, scheduled to run in a $10,000 claimer. But he never made it to the gate. A veterinarian scratched him. Holder put the horse on a van back to Maryland with his groom.
What happened next to Rocking Josh depends on whom you ask.
Scott Posey had trained Josh for owner Wilson and had mentored Holder.
Both Holder and owner Wilson said they contacted Posey to find a home for Josh _ as he had done for other Wilson horses. But Posey, who left the racing industry in disgust, denied either man called him.
Meanwhile, Holder’s groom, Michele Dehn, and others said Josh kept losing weight _ despite having access to a hay bale and receiving grain twice a day. With Holder still in Canada and money scarce, Dehn said she did not call Wilson or a vet . At one point, she contacted a horse dealer about taking Josh, then backed out.
``I didn’t have the heart,″ she said. ``The guy was like, `Well if I take him, you’re just going to have to turn your head the other way.′ ″
Posey said he heard that Josh was back in Maryland and when he went to visit, the horse was standing in the heat munching on a bale of low-grade orchard grass. Posey said he took Josh immediately, and Holder did not argue.
Holder insists he did not push Josh beyond his limits.
Wilson, an Annapolis real estate dealer who doesn’t own a farm, hasn’t seen Josh in more than six months. He was unaware that Josh had even scratched in Canada.
``As owner, my job is to pay the bills, and come to watch them race,″ he said. But, he added, he always trusted his people to make sure his horses were well retired.
``Whereas MANY horses are put down or neglected after their racing days are over, we are not of that ilk _ one horse to the contrary,″ Wilson said.
That many horses end their days broken down and abandoned is a sad fact of the industry, Wilson said.
``It’s a real thorny and horrible, absolutely unavoidable consequence of that whole industry, which breeds for one thing _ speed _ and not anything else,″ he said with a sigh. ``And when you put those kinds of demands, you’re just going to end up with a tremendous number of horses that fail or can’t make it. ...
``Who pays for that when it’s over?″
Herb Moelis, a Delaware racehorse owner who founded Thoroughbred Charities of America 10 years ago, said, ``I do think not every horse can stay alive forever if they’re not useful and they can’t be a riding horse. But there is a way to euthanize a horse that’s more humane, and that’s part of what we’re trying to educate the public.″
Today, Josh is putting on weight again. He has been temporarily placed at a Baltimore boys’ home where the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation runs a farm.
Josh may be one of the first residents at a retirement farm the foundation is dedicating adjacent to the Blackburn Correctional Center in Lexington, along with a farm in Florida.
If he goes to Blackburn, Rocking Josh will end his long journey in the Bluegrass, not far from the farm where he romped as a weanling.
EDITORS NOTE: Allen G. Breed is the AP’s Southeast regional writer, based in Raleigh, N.C.