To Save a Life: The Greatest Feeling in Racing

I am about to start the 2018 Derby Dozen. As I have for the past 40 years, I will be writing about all the beauty and elegance that has defined Thoroughbred racing from the beginning of its inception centuries ago. It gives one a cathartic feeling to capture the royalty and impeccable bloodlines of the Thoroughbred, as well as its power and courage. It truly is the Sport of Kings.

But beyond every throne and every lavish palace there is an underbelly. Like all the great kingdoms of the world throughout history there are those who live in squalor. These are the common folk who barely eke out a living and exist in a far different realm than the nobility that defines them in the history books.

In my early days in racing back in the 1960s and '70s, I saw only Dr. Fager and Damascus and Secretariat and Forego and Ruffian and Seattle Slew and Affirmed. Call it ignorance or naivety, but Twitter and Facebook and one very special person jolted me into the real world and I was able to finally see racing's underbelly, as unpleasant as it may be. I knew it was there and have written about it briefly and on rare occasions, but it is time to address it with more conviction and direct my admiration not to a fast Thoroughbred, but to a woman who is herself a Thoroughbred.

Racing’s underbelly that I alluded to includes the slaughter of horses by owners who are unfit to own Thoroughbreds and care nothing for what they contribute to the human race, as they have for centuries. We all grew up with horses in one way or another, whether through books, movies or television, with some actually living out their childhood fantasies growing up around horses, whether on farms or at the racetrack, thanks to their parents' involvement.

If only all those who get involved in racing can see that each and every Thoroughbred is special; born of the blood with a desire to run a hole in the wind. Not all are sound enough or fast enough to compete at high levels. But that doesn’t mean they don’t try just as hard. Each Thoroughbred is a work of art in its own way, the product of centuries of breeding. And each should be treated with equal passion and dignity. You will find horses trying just as hard at the small bush tracks as you will at Santa Anita and Belmont Park.

But who are these owners who purchase Thoroughbreds through the sales ring or the claiming box, go through them as they would a household appliance, and then get rid of them as they would a piece of junk that no longer works to their satisfaction. How, you ask, can any human being, with even a shred of goodness and caring in them cast aside a living creature for purposes of greed or just plain laziness? How can anyone sentence these magnificent creatures to a horrible death? Are these the same lowlifes who abandon their pets on the side of the road in the dead of winter?

As pathetic and inhumane as these people are, the sport of racing, whether Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds or Quarter Horses, is also guilty in its own way, because it has the power to prevent such cruelty. Yes, we have made strides with some racing jurisdictions revoking the licenses of any owner caught sending their horses to slaughter. But "some" is not enough. It must be "all."

We have also made great strides through the formation of numerous horse rescue organizations, many of them under the umbrella of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. Although I serve on the TAA's advisory board and have partaken in a number of their meetings, I realize there is so much more to be done, and so few people of influence and affluence willing to give back to the animals who have provided them with so much pleasure and so many thrills. The TAA is a major step in the right direction. But in the end, it is the efforts of individuals like Dina Alborano, whose sweat and toil and many sleepless nights, have resulted in the saving of so many horses' lives.

It has been my honor and privilege to cohost a blogtalk radio show with Dina every Thursday night called Switching Leads, and because of our personal relationship, I am reluctant to heap so much praise on her and not the others who also devote so much of their lives to saving horses. But it is because I know Dina and how much she gives of herself that I am able use her as a template for what others are accomplishing behind the scenes, light years from the Kentucky Derby trail and all the blueblood Thoroughbreds who already have their future secured.

Dina has never sought publicity or recognition for what she does so freely and willingly. Her only agenda is her love of horses and to do all she can to save as many as possible. It is because of that I feel she deserves to be mentioned, representing all the other Dinas out there who work so diligently to achieve the same goal.

Although a constant battle, Twitter and Facebook, have helped a great deal, and it is those vehicles that have helped Dina in her constant quest to save horses' lives. It seems every day that Dina is posting photos of horses who need saving and who have been saved thanks to her efforts and the donations of other caring people.

But should we have to rely on Dina and her like and donations from people, whether in the industry or just plain horse lovers? Should this sport be content with having those with modest financial means and several within the industry do all the dirty works that constantly needs to be done? Shouldn't those who have reaped the many rewards of the sport contribute on a regular basis? And most of all, shouldn't all horse owners be held accountable for their horses' lives after they leave the track? Many are very conscientious when it comes to this, but many are not, and so many horses who were one-time stars eventually hit rock bottom and wind up in the hands of people who are not fit to own horses.

One example was the fate of a horse called Monzante five years ago. Winner of the grade I Eddie Read, second in the grade I Charlie Whittingham, and third in the grade II Strub Stakes, the son of Maria’s Mon passed through some top-class barns, such as Juddmonte, Steve Asmussen, Dale Romans, and Mike Mitchell. In his day he swam with some pretty big fishes before plunging to the depths, where he wound up with the bottom feeders as a 9-year-old.

Why was this allowed to happen? Any of his owners could have done their best to keep tabs of a horse who was so good to them and not allow him to deteriorate into what he would become and where he would wind up. But no one can be forced to monitor the whereabouts of their horses after they move on. A more conscious effort, however, would be a major step forward.

Monzante eventually was claimed for $10,000, after which his form began to deteriorate. Instead of retiring the horse and trying to find a good home for him, especially one with his accomplishments, his owner brought him back eight months later and put him in a $4,000 claiming race at Evangeline Downs without a listed work in almost two months. The comment on Equibase following the race was as brief as it was tragic: "Stopped, euthanized.” This in its own way is not much different than horse slaughter.

How does someone who calls himself an owner and trainer allow this to happen, especially in such sensitive times for racing, which has been under microscopic scrutiny from animal rights groups and animal lovers in general? 

How does racing defend itself against the accusations that are sure to follow every unsavory episode? How many so-called horsemen are out there with a license to claim horses who have no regard for the horses’ safety and well being? Any horse, especially one who has given as much as Monzante, deserve a better and more humane fate.

As mentioned, racing has taken some measures to prevent this from happening, but the people who own and train horses need to be more responsible, and their actions have to be monitored more closely. Incidents like this should send up warning flares, and the people to whom these horse are entrusted need to be more accountable for their actions.

Even more despicable are the owners who send their horses to the kill pens for profit. Recently, Dina helped save nine horses in Texas sent to the kill pens, bidding on them until 3 o'clock in the morning. She had to bid on every one of them via an online auction after getting a tip from a woman who did not want her identity revealed. She showed Dina the auction site, telling her that the horses would be going through the auction during the middle of the night to avoid press and that the kill buyers were most likely going to bid them up to at least $500 (the price of meat). Dina, with the help of two anonymous donors, herself, and several people on Twitter, most notably industry handicapper Ian Meyers, who donates a good deal of his winnings to her plight, was able to purchase all nine horses for between $700 and $900. The horses were picked up and vanned six hours to Hal Parker's farm in Louisiana for food and exercise, while spending 30 days in quarantine. Here were nine happy and for the most part healthy horses, accomplished because of tireless work and donations from people who care. Watch the video on Twitter of the horses arriving at Parker’s farm, all with good energy leaving the van, and see if it doesn’t warm your heart.

More recently, Dina received a tip from a friend of Hal Parker’s who lives in Louisiana and heard from someone else that Thoroughbreds off the track were loaded into Thompson’s kill lot and weren't going to be posted for sale anywhere because the owners of the horses paid extra to hide their identities and have them directly shipped to Mexico. Dina continuously called the lot to obtain the lip tattoos to identify the horses. As the countdown to the deadline continued, Dina had little or no sleep trying to obtain enough donations to purchase the horses.

”Usually, these lots actually post horses for sale on Facebook prior to slaughter because they know people's emotions will make them pay top dollar," Dina said. "These specific horses were concealed.”

The Louisiana Thoroughbreds between ages 2 and 6 (yes, 2-years-old) were videotaped running through Thompson's kill lot with a bail of $985 for each horse. Along with shipping costs and 30-day quarantine the total amount came to $13,000. Again, most of the industry remained silent when Dina asked for help. She went into action looking for donations, and thanks to racing people who did come through such as Richard Migliore, Matt Schera, Rich Papiese, Zoe Cadman, Graham Motion, and Ahmed Zayat, as well as Patrick James Murphy and John Montalbano. Dina, with no sleep for 18 hours, was able to obtain all the horses. When they were picked up it was discovered there were two more Thoroughbreds in the lot and she took them as well. What was all the more alarming was that many of the horses had just raced five to 10 days earlier at Delta Downs and Evangeline Downs.

The racing industry should be aware of the names of those owners and the proper repercussions should have ensued. Imagine sending a 2-year-old to the killers. Should that person be allowed to ever own a racehorse again? I would love to hear a formal answer to that question from an industry leader. The problem is, unlike other major sports, racing has no leader, no central ruling body. What is the sense of crying when there is no one to hear your cries?

Dina posted photos, background information, and updates on each horse on Twitter after getting their lip tattoos. They, too, were vanned to Hal Parker's, this time “only” 3 1/2 hours away. To thank the donors, Dina held a raffle giving away a halter belonging to major stakes winner The Pizza Man.

Dina has been contacted by CBS World News Tonight wanting to do a segment on these lots. As she has done in the past with many of her rescues, Dina will be going to check on the horses in three weeks to see how they are doing.

What Dina is doing mostly on her own and through donations should be done under supervision of the racing industry, and with the assistance of more prominent owners. Imagine working your whole life and then having to retire without a pension or social security or a 401K. The only social security a Thoroughbred asks for is staying alive after he or she retires or is whisked away to a kill pen by some heartless owner. Owners should not restrict their priorities to helping save or find homes for their own horses, but as many as possible who need their help. They owe it to the industry and to the community of Thoroughbreds who enriched their lives and the lives of so many others.

Now I can dive head first into the Derby Dozen after saying what needed to be said. It likely will fall on deaf ears, but as long as there are people like Dina and all the other conscientious horse lovers who work so tirelessly and give so much of themselves, at least some of the horses will have a fighting chance. For now, we can only hope that those deaf ears start hearing the cry for help and think of those cries the next time they look into their own horses’ eyes or stroke their neck on a quiet morning at the barn or are hugging their family members in the winner’s circle following a thrilling victory. They will discover that the inner peace and the jubilation they feel are exceeded by the feeling of having saved lives.

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