45 horses dead on three Southern California tracks during 2019 seasons––and 39 at Belmont alone
LOS ALAMITOS, California––Two horse deaths in the first race of the next-to-last-day of the Los Alamitos Race Course on December 14, 2019 renewed attention to high injury toll in horse racing, but upstaged the disintegration of the California Equine Retirement Foundation just an hour and a half straight east.
Neither did mainstream media explain, in reporting the Los Alamitos casualties, that even if race horses survive crippling breakdowns, most have nowhere to go but to slaughter.
Mighty Elijah, Into A Hot Spot
“Mighty Elijah, a 4-year-old gelding, injured his left front leg and was taken off the track and euthanized,” wrote Nina Golgowski for U.S. News, “while Into a Hot Spot, also 4, collapsed and died on the track.”
The Los Angeles Times mentioned that the Los Alamitos track stewards attributed the death of Into a Hot Spot to unspecified internal injuries.
“Mighty Elijah’s death has received particular attention,” noted Golgowski, “because his owner, Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, has been banned from participating in races at Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields since late June. The Stronach Group, which owns both of the race tracks, blamed Hollendorfer’s safety record for the decision.”
Eight Hollendorfer-trained horses fell in 2019
Mighty Elijah was the eighth death of a Hollendorfer-trained horse in California during 2019. The toll, Golgowski recounted, included four deaths at Santa Anita, two at Golden Gate Fields, and one each at Del Mar and Los Alamitos.
Altogether, 37 horses died at Santa Anita during a racing season that ran from December 2018 to June 2019. Five horses died during the six-week Del Mar summer season, which ran from mid-July to September. Three horses died at Los Alamitos, whose racing season ran only from December 6 to December 15.
The much publicized toll at Santa Anita, as ANIMALS 24-7 has repeatedly pointed out and the horse racing world has ignored, may have been elevated by the chemical reaction of clay with ash deposits from nearby wildfires in the month preceding the racing season. Simply put, the fact that ash hardens clay has been known to potters for more than 3,500 years.
Many more go to slaughter than die from injuries
But even at that, Santa Anita had fewer track deaths in 2019 than Belmont Park, near New York City, where 39 horses reportedly died during a 48-day racing season
USA Today Network data indicates that an average of more than 600 thoroughbreds per year die or are euthanized due to racing injuries. National Thoroughbred Racing Association president Alex Waldrop estimates that about 12 and a half times as many, 7,500 in all, are trucked to Mexico or Canada to be slaughtered for human consumption.
The Louisiana State University Agricultural Center estimates that feeding and maintaining a horse costs about $4,000 a year, a number which may be low if the horse requires any sort of specialized care.
But assuming that the LSU estimate is ballpark accurate for retired race horses, a budget of $30 million per year could accommodate each year’s worth of horses taken off the track. Multiply that by the fifteen to 20 years retired racehorses can be expected to live on average.
TRF tried to buck the odds
The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) tried to buck the odds.
The largest, most ambitious, and among the oldest race horse retirement organizations in the U.S., the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation was begun by New Jersey advertising executive Monique Koehler in 1983 to supervise a retired race horse rehabilitation program at the Wallkill Correctional Facility in upstate New York.
Headquartered near the Saratoga Raceway in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation raises and spends about $2 million per year to board about 950 horses at seven prisons and 11 farms around the U.S.
Most of the TRF partner facilities are east of the Mississippi River, but one is in California.
Boarded 1,500 ex-race horses at peak
The prison programs helped the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation to place more than 650 rehabilitated thoroughbreds in adoptive homes, as of 2011. Many retired race horses, however, were accepted into the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation program after suffering injuries on the track or in training that precluded use for recreational riding.
At peak, circa 2010, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation boarded as many as 1,500 ex-race horses at 32 locations, including 11 prisons, but eventually ran afoul of economic reality, despite considerable support from the racing industry.
Jan du Pont, whose thoroughbred Kelso was a five-time Horse of the Year, dispersed her Hexonia racing stable and founded the Greener Pastures sanctuary in Maryland in 1991 to affiliate with TRF.
In 2001 the estate of banking magnate Paul Mellon endowed TRF with $5 million, and later added another $2 million to the endowment.
The son of former U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon, Paul Mellon was one of the leading art philanthropists in the U.S. throughout his life (1907-1999), and from 1948 to his death owned Rokeby Stables, one of the most successful U.S. thoroughbred breeding operations.
The Mellon endowment enabled the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation to increase the number of horses in care from 300 in 2001 to more than 1,250 in 2005.
Also funded by the Jockey Club
The New York Racing Association, in partnership with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, created the Ferdinand Fee, a program to support race horse retirement, in memory of the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand, who in 2002 was slaughtered in Japan.
Employees of Churchill Downs Inc., owner of seven race tracks, raised $240,000 for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation in 2002-2005, according to James R. Carroll of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
In addition TRF received––and still receives––funding from the Jockey Club, raised through a voluntary checkoff donation to race horse retirement made by breeders when they register thoroughbred foals.
The Jockey Club checkoff fund also helps to finance Thoroughbred Charities of America, a similar but unrelated project based in Middletown, Delaware. The Thoroughbred Charities of America web site acknowledges that it “is the charitable arm of the Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders Association.”
The ASPCA got into the act as well
In 2009 the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation took in nine of 177 horses who were seized from breeder Ernie Paragallo, then 52, who was in March 2010 convicted of 33 counts of neglecting horses at his farm in Coxsackie, New York.
The Paragallo case appeared to inspire the American SPCA to grant $175,000 to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, also in March 2010, as one of the first six beneficiaries of a donor-sponsored program called the Million Dollar Rescuing Racers Initiative.
Despite all that, and additional funds donated by the public, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation could not sponsor retirement for more than a fraction of the number of horses in need––and neither could anyone else, even if all of the organizations that tried to rescue race horses had managed to work together in a harmonious partnership.
Over-extended since 2007
Eventually the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation became “so slow or delinquent in paying for the upkeep of the under its care that scores wound up starved and neglected, some fatally,” New York Times horse racing writer Joe Drape charged on March 18, 2011, in the first of a series of an apparently long overdue exposés.
TRF had become over-extended as early as 2007, recalled racing journalist Ray Paulick, editor of The Paulick Report.
“A half-dozen or more Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation board members quit. One was thrown off,” wrote Paulick. “Ex-board members were poisoning the organization through calls to the news media undermining remaining board members and management. I reached out to TRF founder Monique Koehler to see if there was anything I could do to help. I was elected to the TRF board of directors,” Paulick acknowledged.
“We were & are responsible for them”
“Most businesses with excessive inventory would look for ways to reduce that inventory,” Paulick said at the time, “but while thoroughbreds may be dispensable to many owners and breeders, they are not to TRF. Whether it was wise for the TRF board and management to admit so many horses into the program, we were and are responsible for them.”
The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation appeared for a time to have stabilized, with the help of a $500,000 loan from the Mellon trust. Investment revenue, chiefly from the Mellon endowment, generated $750,000 in 2007, and $719,000 in 2008. But then the 2008-2009 national economic collapse cut investment income to just $60,000 in 2009.
“Many were starving”
As a result of the economic implosion, charged Drape, “at the 4-H Farm in Oklahoma, inspectors could find only 47 of the 63 retired horses that had been assigned to it. Many were starving. The rest had died, probably of neglect, the inspectors concluded. At a Kentucky farm also supposed to receive money from the foundation, 34 horses were found in ‘poor or emaciated’ condition. One horse had to be euthanized because of malnutrition.”
“Inability to pay the agreed costs for the care of horses severed a number of relationships with farms,” Drape continued, “including Claybank Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, which cared for up to 80 horses. Interviews with farm owners, as well as e-mail correspondence they provided, showed the foundation was aware of its deepening financial straits––occasionally taking horses from farms where they had been well cared for and placing them elsewhere on the cheap.”
“Too many horses, not enough money”
The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation disputed the details of Drape’s exposé. Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation herd management committee chair John C. Moore III, who later was TRF president, and two other TRF board members meanwhile loaned TRF a total of at least $345,000 to help make ends meet.
But, wrote Paulick, who had by then left the TRF board, “almost exactly four years after the TRF’s internal problems came to my attention, the organization faced exactly the same challenges: too many horses, not enough money, and not enough people willing to act on behalf of retired racehorses.”
This time the New York Charities Bureau and New York state attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman noticed the debacle and sued the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation for alleged mismanagement.
Ordered to downsize
On November 19, 2013, Schneiderman announced a settlement requiring the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation to downsize back to 950 horses in care, and to add a state-appointed veterinarian to its board.
“A revamped board will also include a director nominated by an animal welfare organization and one nominated by members of the nation’s horse racing and breeding industry,” Schneiderman said. “The settlement further requires the board to establish a five-person committee, consisting of the three new directors and two current board members not named as defendants in the lawsuit, charged with recruiting a new, full-time chief executive officer for the organization.
“The agreement requires that both current CEO and board chairman John Moore and long-time director Diana Pikulski resign within a year of a new CEO being hired,” Schneiderman added.
No more loans
“The lawsuit alleged that TRF took on more horses than it had the resources to pay for and, when it lacked donor funds to cover those added expenses, it improperly tapped the foundation’s endowment, established by the estate of Paul Mellon, to secure a total of $2 million in loans,” Schneiderman continued.
“Under the settlement, the organization is prohibited from using the endowment fund to secure any future loans.”
Pikulski, though resigning as Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation chief executive, remained with the organization as national director of major gifts, planned giving, and endowment development until her own retirement on February 12, 2018, after 35 years of service: ten as a volunteer, 25 as a full-time employee after closing her personal law practice in 1997.