Thursday, January 9, 2014

Some Thoughts on the End of the Road

Hmmm, it's been a long time between blog posts. Guess that's what an overdose of Twitter can do to you. New Year's resolution for 2014: don't try to do in 140 characters what takes 800 or more words to get right.

Hence, this piece on how to prevent the thoroughbreds we love and who run their hearts out for us from ending up dead on the race track or in the "kill pen" at auctions for horses bound for the slaughterhouse. Thanks to the efforts of a dedicated band of volunteers, many thoroughbreds have been rescued from the auction pens at New Holland, PA,  and throughout the country. The horses that aren't rescued, though, go through some pretty hellish ordeals. A good description of the process is available from the Humane Society of the US, an organization that I disagree with on many issues, but am in total agreement on this one.

On the way to slaughter

For those of us in the thoroughbred racing world, perhaps the most abhorrent aspect of horse slaughter is the way that so many hard-working, previously successful race horses eventually make their way down the racing ladder, in some cases from Grade 1 stakes to $4,000 claiming races. These horses have more than earned the right to a second career, or just to a comfortable retirement. Whether we pay $5,000 or $5 million for them initially, we all have an obligation to see that they are decently cared for.

Horse slaughter for older horses that can no longer pay their way on the race track is only part of the problem. When horses die on the track, or are vanned off and put down out of public sight, that also reflects on all of us in the business. Sometimes, the death of a horse on the track is just an accident, but sometimes, it's the result of pushing a horse too hard, trying to get just one more race out of him.

So, how to get a handle on dealing with these two separate but related issues? Let me start by telling a story.

Last August, my little partnership, Castle Village Farm, claimed a five-year-old chestnut NY-bred gelding, East of Danzig, at Saratoga. We took him for $20,000 out of a turf race for horses that, among other conditions, hadn't won on the turf in the past six months. East of Danzig still had his NY-bred N2X allowance condition available, but hadn't run quite fast enough to be competitive at that level, which is why he was in for a claiming tag. We, like all owners eternally optimistic, were hoping we could get that allowance win. But in fact, East of Danzig was exactly what he looked like on paper -- a solid, hard-trying horse that ran ultra-consistent speed figures and tried every time, but that was just a step too slow to move up. So we entered him back at the same $20,000 level three times, earning a third, a second and, on October 13th at Belmont, a win. But in that October 13 race, he was claimed by trainer David Jacobson, who in the past few years has come to dominate the New York claiming scene. Seemed to me to be a not-so-smart claim, since East of Danzig is a pure turf horse and the turf season was winding down, and since his speed figures clearly showed that it was unlikely he'd get faster at age 6 and get that NY-bred allowance win. But Jacobson has made what seemed to be pretty silly claims from us before, taking Castle Village Farm's stakes winner Introspect for $50,000 (we later retrieved him and raised $10,000 so we could retire him) and taking our stakes-placed sprinter Southern Missile for an absurd $75,000, both in 2008.

In any event, after Jacobson claimed him, East of Danzig disappeared from the workout tab for over a month, only to appear in the entries at Laurel in a $5,000 claiming race on the dirt on December 11th. Our partners were ready to claim him back out of that race and either rest him over the winter for the 2014 turf season or, if necessary, retire him. As it turned out, he was claimed by Maryland-based trainer Mary Eppler, who appears to understand that for $5,000 she got a pretty good and always hard-trying grass horse. I expect to see East of Danzig in the entries, on turf, this coming spring, at a level that more accurately reflects his value.

East of Danzig at Belmont

So what's the point of that story?

First, it illustrates a well-documented pattern in which Jacobson and other claiming trainers ship horses out of New York to lesser tracks, where it's harder for the horses' former owners to keep track of, and, if needed, rescue them. For Jacobson, these dumping grounds are Laurel and Suffolk. For other trainers, they may be PARX, near Philadelphia, Finger Lakes in upstate New York, or Charles Town and Mountaineer in West Virginia. Once, we even found one of our former horses running for $2,500 at a place called Mount Pleasant Meadows in Michigan (fortunately, a rescue was arranged there as well). Many of the horror stories of stakes-quality horses falling from grace and ending up breaking down on the track come from these lesser ovals, where perhaps veterinary supervision is less stringent than, say, at NYRA, or where purses are so small that trainers feel compelled to run their horses every 10 or 14 days, even if the horse in't sound enough to stand that workload.

Second, it illustrates a pattern of perverse incentives that can reward a trainer for dropping horses in class, even as the drop penalizes the owner. To my knowledge, Jacobson's arrangement with his principal owner, Drawing Away Stable, has these perverse incentives. Here's how I'm told it works: Drawing Away partners provide the funds to claim horses, but pay no ongoing training bills. In return for taking care of the horse, Jacobson gets something like 65% of the purse (I'm not sure of the exact percentage; Drawing Away partners should feel free to correct me with accurate figures.) In contrast, the more normal arrangement, at least on major-league racing circuits like New York, is for the owner to pay the training bills (in New York, $90-125 per day, plus at least several hundred dollars per month in vet bills), and for the trainer to get 10% of the purse. Thus, because Jacobson, and those like him who make similar deals with their owners, bear the cost of feeding and caring for the horse, but bear none of the capital loss if the horse is claimed away for less that its purchase price, and because Jacobson and similar trainers keep a large percentage of the purse, there's every incentive to drop a horse to a level where it's (relatively) sure to get a big chunk of the purse. And there's an incentive, again based on the cost of caring for the horse vis-a-vis the purse, to run a horse as often as possible. So, most of the time, that's how Jacobson and similar trainers play the game, often to the detriment of the horses in their care.

I'm not trying to limit this problem to Jacobson; other trainers have similar deals and therefore face similar perverse incentives. But Jacobson has the most horses, and the most reported problems, so he is the face of the issue. Two of his horses, in particular, have produced a firestorm of comment, some rational, some not, on Facebook and Twitter in the past few days.

First, well-know horse owner and lawyer Maggi Moss raised questions about Toque, a horse claimed by Jacobson last March for $25,000, then raced at Monmouth for $5,000 in May and Suffolk for $4,000 in June and then vanished from sight. Ms. Moss's tenacity uncovered the fact that Toque then appeared at the New Holland kill auction in September, only to be "bailed out" by the rescue broker AC4H, but subsequently died.

Second, the 7-year-old gelding Uncle Smokey, a horse with a history of unsoundness,  broke down and was euthanized on the track at Aqueduct on January 2, after making his third start in 15 days and sixth in 61 days.According to some who were at the track that day, Uncle Smokey was definitely sending signals that he didn't want to race.

Most trainers don't race horses that often, but the drop in claiming price and/or a series of races in rapid succession is a familiar pattern for Jacobson. Just looking at the Aqueduct cards for today and tomorrow, he entered three that fit the pattern: (1) Rift, entered in today's 7th race for $12,500, but scratched by the NYRA vet, was dropped from the $25,000 that Jacobson paid for him last month; (2) El Oh El, entered in Friday's 3rd race for $20,000, was claimed by Jacobson for $35,000 at Saratoga, has raced as low as $12,500, and will be making his 8th start in 12 weks; and (3) Force Multiplier, in the same $20,000 race, was claimed for $25,000 at Saratoga, eventually dropped to $12,500, where he won, and now has to run at the higher $20,000 N3L condition.

Other trainers send out horses that probably shouldn't be racing, and other trainers have had horses die on the race track. But when a trainer who has just set a new record for wins at NYRA in a calendar year, and whose horse fill more spots in NYRA starting gates than any other starts seeing horses die or end up at the killers, it's appropriate that the spotlight shines in his direction. The same thing happened to Bob Baffert when his barn experienced a spate of cardiac arrest deaths. Leading trainers are big boys; they should be able to bear public scrutiny.

Jacobson, like virtually all other trainers, has lost horses to accidents that probably couldn't have been avoided. The stakes winner and crowd favorite Saginaw took a bad step at Saratoga and was euthanized after breaking down on the track on August 20th last year. There's no hint that he was over-raced, or that Jacobson gave this high-performing horse anything but the best of care. Similarly, the lightly raced 4-year-old colt Coronate threw his rider at Aqueduct on December 26th and fatally injured himself trying to jump a fence. Bad things happen in racing. Not all of them are a trainer's fault. 

For those of us who love horses, it's beyond upsetting when a race horse dies on the track, or when a thoroughbred that has given years of effort to its owners ends up in the kill pen at New Holland. So what can we, as owners and fans, do to mitigate the problem?

First, we can all support the burgeoning efforts within the industry to provide second careers or dignified retirement for horses that are no longer on the track. The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance is an industry-wide group, whose Board includes important owners, breeders and trainers, devoted to funding thoroughbred retirement and ensuring that retirement facilities meet basic standards. Numerous groups already exist to provide retirement options, including CANTER, New Vocations and New York's own TAKE2 program (disclosure: I'm a member of the Board of Directors of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NYTHA), which sponsors the TAKE2 program, and NYTHA President Rick Violette is on the Board of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.)

Second, if one owns horses, even as a partner in a large group, it's important to do whatever one can to protect their welfare. Don't let them slip out of sight.

Third, put pressure on race tracks and regulators to enforce existing rules. NYRA and other tracks have rules that bar trainers who let their horses go to the slaughter auctions. But those rules seem rarely to be enforced. Writing to track executives and state regulators urging quicker, more consistent enforcement of the rules will certainly help move the issues up on those folks' agendas.

My apologies for the length of this, and for the unusually personal tone, but the spate of bad news about horses over the past few weeks just struck a nerve.




11 comments:

Teresa said...

Interesting, Steve, that the focus of the post is on trainers and not owners. How many of the horses that you mention were owned by Drawing Away?

Also curious about why you think it's harder for owners to keep track of horses when they race out of town. With the myriad stable watch tools out there, it seems that it would be just as easy to monitor their racing out of town as when they race here.

Mary Jo said...

Thank you, Steve, for the article. I am always glad when this issue gets attention. I am also glad that you outlined specific actions that we can take. Racing is always whining about how no one goes to the tracks anymore but the reason is so clear - people are not comfortable watching these beautiful animals, knowing that many will end up in slaughter. (Remember how stories about what happens to unwanted greyhounds killed that "sport"?)It's not 1955 anymore. Today people care about that kind of thing, but racing doesn't get it!

Marion N. said...

I found your blog by accident, but am impressed and couldn't agree more with your point of view.
There is so much more that could be done "before the end of the road" in order to prevent the abuse of the horses falling into this category.

My personal opinion is that the American system in the horse racing industry is the first problem of a chain reaction: with it's lack of regulations and oversight, the negligence of supporting universal rules within the US just invites too many people to 'play the system' to their personal and monetary advantage. Real and competent horsemen are having a hard time to compete against those who see and use their horses as commodity only.

I am from Europe and worked within the racing industry for most of my life, but left my lifelong passion only 3 years after moving to the US, as I decided for myself that I won't be part of the problem. I love horses and racing! But I can't live with the drug and abuse culture of these amazing animals here.

In my humble opinion, it starts already with drugs, steroids and even surgeries while yearlings are still at the farms before the first sales. Then it goes over to the more intense drugs and many times overworking of these young and delicate still growing youngsters before they even enter the tracks for their first 2 year old races.
From there it is a matter of the owner and trainer they come to, with only a very few having great care in regards to keeping them sound for the long run. Way too many are run in way too short increments of time, with more and more drugs over time to mask injuries or give the advantage of any other possible edge; all without ever placing the horse's well being first.

And at the end there is the claiming game waiting, which you so accurately described in this blog.
My personal take on finding a solution? Stop the drugs and join the rest of the world with a zero tolerance for any medications unless needed to cure an illness or injury. Put stricter regulations into place as to who can even obtain trainer licenses and especially raise up the fines and other consequences for disregarding the racing rules. Put more regulations into place to prevent horses from abuse in the claiming game as to how often and in which time increments these horses are eligible to race or be re-claimed again.

These options should help a great deal already, but at the end there is still the same problem of the aftercare. Still much more needs to be done to support all retirement and rehabilitation organizations from either purse money, etc...

Can this be done? Yes, as it is practiced in other parts of the world already for decades. Can it be done here? I may be dreaming... :-(

Thank you for taking the time to read my input,
Sincerely
Marion N. Seidel
(author of 'Just Another Race Horse' and 'Race Horse Training')

Marion N. said...

I found your blog by accident, but am impressed and couldn't agree more with your point of view.
There is so much more that could be done "before the end of the road" in order to prevent the abuse of the horses falling into this category.

My personal opinion is that the American system in the horse racing industry is the first problem of a chain reaction: with it's lack of regulations and oversight, the negligence of supporting universal rules within the US just invites too many people to 'play the system' to their personal and monetary advantage. Real and competent horsemen are having a hard time to compete against those who see and use their horses as commodity only.

I am from Europe and worked within the racing industry for most of my life, but left my lifelong passion only 3 years after moving to the US, as I decided for myself that I won't be part of the problem. I love horses and racing! But I can't live with the drug and abuse culture of these amazing animals here.

In my humble opinion, it starts already with drugs, steroids and even surgeries while yearlings are still at the farms before the first sales. Then it goes over to the more intense drugs and many times overworking of these young and delicate still growing youngsters before they even enter the tracks for their first 2 year old races.
From there it is a matter of the owner and trainer they come to, with only a very few having great care in regards to keeping them sound for the long run. Way too many are run in way too short increments of time, with more and more drugs over time to mask injuries or give the advantage of any other possible edge; all without ever placing the horse's well being first.

And at the end there is the claiming game waiting, which you so accurately described in this blog.
My personal take on finding a solution? Stop the drugs and join the rest of the world with a zero tolerance for any medications unless needed to cure an illness or injury. Put stricter regulations into place as to who can even obtain trainer licenses and especially raise up the fines and other consequences for disregarding the racing rules. Put more regulations into place to prevent horses from abuse in the claiming game as to how often and in which time increments these horses are eligible to race or be re-claimed again.

These options should help a great deal already, but at the end there is still the same problem of the aftercare. Still much more needs to be done to support all retirement and rehabilitation organizations from either purse money, etc...

Can this be done? Yes, as it is practiced in other parts of the world already for decades. Can it be done here? I may be dreaming... :-(

Thank you for taking the time to read my input,
Sincerely
Marion N. Seidel
(author of 'Just Another Race Horse' and 'Race Horse Training')

McSpin said...

Owners are looking to the people who claim their horses to do the right thing, knowing that they don't and won't. There's a solution to this: be the answer you want. This is a little too hard for most people to contemplate. For the horses that they claim to love, the horses that try so hard for everyone, they should try it, keep trying it, keep at it, and not give up.

Maybe then, articles lamenting the lack of second careers won't be so needed.

Kathryn Moody said...

Great writing,as a former trainer of claimers I totally understand the process,and agree with the fact that many horses are kept running for whatever they can get. It is very hard to make it with a small claiming stable,but the animal still deserves the best you can afford him,including the chance to retire to a new career while he is still able!We all should keep this in mind when trying to get our old warriors out for one more race...

Sal Carcia said...

Steve, I always learn something more about the horse ownership side of the business when I read your blog. I wish you would do it more often.

The only question I have is if the owners have put in place a compensation system that hurts their interests, then why don't they change it?

Unknown said...

Thank you Steve for evaluating this chronic problem from an owner's perspective. Many of us who are involved in horse welfare devote a great deal of our time to promote the adoption, rehoming and retraining of Thoroughbreds that are no longer achieving ultimate, consistent success at the track. Whether it be a young horse who shows little racing potential or a former Grade I winner who has descended the ranks into the claiming jungle, every horse has their limits. Every horse who has served the industry in any capacity deserves a chance at a dignified, second career or a safe and healthy retirement. Each day our equine athletes (as well as their jockeys) enter a track they are essentially and potentially risking their lives. Surely as they give so much for our entertainment and pleasure, we can establish sound and secure protocols that provide linkage from the track to a vetted equine retirement/retraining center that assures them the best possible chance of a sound and happy life after the track. Yes accidents happen. And yes sometimes things go awry in the placement of a horse. But the MAJORITY should be able to be transitioned through vetted, evaluated programs who provide expert care and seasoned aftercare trainers and experienced equine veterinarians who ease the thoroughbred race horse into the life of an OTTB.
Every trainer ought to have linkage to an established program and those who don't do this voluntarily need to be COMPELLED to do so through threat of sanctions and/or penalties. Each track should have a resource/referral officer. If a track is smaller they can use the services of CANTER or one of the other programs. These referral services cost trainers nothing! Most of the track liaisons are trained volunteers. Owners should also be aware of these services and some arrangements ought to be in place between owners and trainers as to which party is going to be responsible for seeking and funding aftercare. I believe that each track should require proof of these arrangements before granting stall space to trainers, but without an enforcing agency I don't see this happening. Tracks are more interested in filling races than they are in the welfare of the racers themselves. This has to change.
Horse racing shouldn't be a gladiator sport. Let me close by saying that the absolutely abysmal statistics of equine breakdowns are KILLING the sport. We lose more fans each year due to these incidents. The lower level tracks need support so that potential purses need to be improved and more allowance races can be added to the cards. Claiming has become a miserable cycle where horses go around as carousel horses, changing trainers and owners so frequently that they could not possibly be optimally successful. If horsemen and women want to have fans and satisfied bettors to support the sport, more had better begin to take the issue of equine retirement more seriously. Many already do, but we need to do more. Racehorse retirement should be the norm, not the "oh isn't that wonderful" exception. If not, there won't be any market for breeding programs, lobbyists, venues services, associations, lobbyists, or concession contracts. A great sport will die due to its own greed and hubris.

Dawna said...

Thanks much for your thoughts and the interesting read... I jumped when I saw the mention of East of Danzig, who I photographed and loved this past summer at Saratoga. I'm glad you prioritize the racehorses in your partnership after they are relinquished from your care. I don't know much about the logistics of racehorse ownership or what factors into obtaining a license to own or train them, but it's good to see there is some good out there working against the negative grain often presented by the media.

Unknown said...

Thank you Steve for evaluating this chronic problem from an owner's perspective. Many of us who are involved in horse welfare devote a great deal of our time to promote the adoption, rehoming and retraining of Thoroughbreds that are no longer achieving ultimate, consistent success at the track. Whether it be a young horse who shows little racing potential or a former Grade I winner who has descended the ranks into the claiming jungle, every horse has their limits. Every horse who has served the industry in any capacity deserves a chance at a dignified, second career or a safe and healthy retirement. Each day our equine athletes (as well as their jockeys) enter a track they are essentially and potentially risking their lives. Surely as they give so much for our entertainment and pleasure, we can establish sound and secure protocols that provide linkage from the track to a vetted equine retirement/retraining center that assures them the best possible chance of a sound and happy life after the track. Yes accidents happen. And yes sometimes things go awry in the placement of a horse. But the MAJORITY should be able to be transitioned through vetted, evaluated programs who provide expert care and seasoned aftercare trainers and experienced equine veterinarians who ease the thoroughbred race horse into the life of an OTTB.
Every trainer ought to have linkage to an established program and those who don't do this voluntarily need to be COMPELLED to do so through threat of sanctions and/or penalties. Each track should have a resource/referral officer. If a track is smaller they can use the services of CANTER or one of the other programs. These referral services cost trainers nothing! Most of the track liaisons are trained volunteers. Owners should also be aware of these services and some arrangements ought to be in place between owners and trainers as to which party is going to be responsible for seeking and funding aftercare. I believe that each track should require proof of these arrangements before granting stall space to trainers, but without an enforcing agency I don't see this happening. Tracks are more interested in filling races than they are in the welfare of the racers themselves. This has to change.
Horse racing shouldn't be a gladiator sport. Let me close by saying that the absolutely abysmal statistics of equine breakdowns are KILLING the sport. We lose more fans each year due to these incidents. The lower level tracks need support so that potential purses need to be improved and more allowance races can be added to the cards. Claiming has become a miserable cycle where horses go around as carousel horses, changing trainers and owners so frequently that they could not possibly be optimally successful. If horsemen and women want to have fans and satisfied bettors to support the sport, many more had better begin to take the issue of equine retirement seriously. A great number already do, but we need to advance the cause and add to the ranks. Racehorse retirement should be the norm, not the "oh isn't that wonderful" exception. If not, there won't be any market for breeding programs, lobbyists, venues services, associations, lobbyists, or concession contracts. A great sport will die due to its own greed and hubris.
- Susan Crane-Sundell @sabaahslight

Anne said...

Great article Steve. You hit the subject with a powerful entry.
Being invovled in that mentioned "Not so pleasant" Pleasant Meadows claim it must be noted that when the slimy trainer and
owner of this horse, heard of the efforts of myself along with the tedious efforts of Gail Hirt's Beyond The Roses Rescue and others from Michigan,
they raised his claiming price from 2,500 to 4,000. There are no set claiming rules at that track other than the fact no one claims from another trainer. They have a pack. Since a trainer got wind that I was working with Old Friends, he felt the need to help. Without that connection this horse could have ended up in a not so happy ending. It was a time in my life of ups and downs. Extremely frustrating and stressful. I cried like a baby when this rescue finally was completed. CVF was extremely helpful along with some friends. The breeder was not helpful nor was Cantor of Michigan. Not all Cantors are as great as some may be made to believe. I was warned of this particular one. They were spot on.
Was this a hardship for me, absolutely! Was it worth it? Absolutely. Let it be known, that not all rescues are easy. It is an act of love and strength of one's soul. It is not for sissies.