On Derby Day 2008 shock waves traveled through the Thoroughbred world. A talented filly named Eight Belles finished second in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) but after the finish, the filly stumbled and was euthanized on the track in front of more than 100,000 fans and millions watching on TV. We knew we had to address a problem that has been with us for quite some time. We examined our tracks, drug policies, breeding concepts, and many other things we took for granted.
When are we going to wake up to another very public problem: What happens to racehorses when they finish their racing careers.
There have been laws passed recently that have reduced the number of horses going to slaughter. Additionally, we are seeing the costs of caring for horses, including feed, transportation, hay, and straw, skyrocket. This has translated to more abandoned horses. According to the United States Department of Agriculture data, there are approximately 100,000 unwanted horses in the U.S. each year, a major problem and potential public relations nightmare. The time is now to address it.
Thoroughbred Charities of America (TCA) supports about 200 of the groups that care for unwanted horses. We have seen the increase in the number of horses these groups must care for and the increasing costs and the lack of funding for them. I’ve heard many stories about horses being turned loose on highways and other horror stories for lack of funding. For the Thoroughbred industry to turn a blind eye to this problem will only result in another jolt, probably much worse from an industry viewpoint, than even the Eight Belles tragedy. How do we avoid this and do the right thing before we have People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and others demonstrating and asserting that we are inhumane and uncaring about our horses? How do we avoid having the government step in to regulate?
The answer is we must make owners responsible for the welfare of their horses, both during their racing careers and also when those careers end. If we agree owner responsibility is needed, the question is, “How do we get owners to be responsible?” Education of new owners is a necessity. When a person decides that he would like to participate in the excitement of racing, he should be educated to the reality that after racing the horse must be provided for.
Yet education alone will still not cure the problem. We must find a way to raise a steady and reliable source of money for the care of horses after their racing careers. Having been a founder and president of TCA and having raised in excess of $16 million over 18 years, I fully understand how difficult it is to raise money voluntarily. To depend on voluntary individual donations would be futile.
There is a very logical and simple way to raise money for this purpose. When owners register their foals The Jockey Club requires a registration form to be filed with payment of $200. Why can’t we add $50 to provide for care of the foal for life? This would be similar to a Social Security program for horses.
There are approximately 40,000 Thoroughbreds registered each year. At $50 each the total amount assessed annually would be $2 million. This would go a long way to providing a decent life for all Thoroughbreds after their racing careers. A Social Security system is the most feasible way to help, and The Jockey Club is the most logical agent for this project.
When I proposed this a number of years ago to The Jockey Club, I was told that it would be a burden on owners and there would be strong resistance. The Jockey Club would not implement the assessment, because, I was told, even if they collected the money they would not have the mechanism to distribute the funds. My answer to this is simple. TCA has a comprehensive file on all rescue organizations and would help in the distribution of funds. If an owner cannot afford $50 when registering a foal, then that person has no business being an owner. For the welfare of our industry and the welfare of our horses, this assessment is necessary and reasonable.
Herb Moelis is the president of Thoroughbred Charities of America