Porter Forms Organization to Save Horses

If you could use a two-word racing term to best describe the ever-growing issue of horse slaughter it would be "blinkers off."

After so many years of apathy and ignorance when it comes to the horrific end so many of our Thoroughbreds are subjected to in the name of greed, we indeed are starting to remove the blinkers and are actually taking an active role in preventing this barbaric practice through the rescuing of countless horses from the kill pens, thanks to tireless work and donations of many.

But the battle is just beginning. It is going to take a concentrated industry effort to prevent the equine warriors--without whom the sport would not exist--from meeting such a cruel fate.

One person who has taken the reins and addressed this issue head-on, along with the general welfare of the Thoroughbred, is Fox Hill Farm owner Rick Porter, who has had numerous champions and top horses, such as Songbird, Havre de Grace, Hard Spun, Round Pond, and Eight Belles, and Jostle.

Porter has formed the National Thoroughbred Welfare Organization (NTWO), which will "pull from all available resources to be a comprehensive welfare organization that protects racing's greatest asset--the horse--for the overall benefit of the sport."

"In racing, we have many organizations and individuals who put forth much time, effort, and money into equine welfare, specifically retirement and retraining," Porter said. "In recent years we've seen the efforts grow through new organizations like the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), and tracks and sales companies getting involved with support of local rescue organizations. We've also seen the growth of many organizations and individuals using social media for their efforts.

"We commend all these efforts and owe a debt of gratitude for all that they have done and continue to do. What is missing, however, is a national industry organization which can be pointed to as an all-encompassing equine welfare organization." 

Porter feels that society continues to grow more sensitive to animal welfare issues, and Thoroughbred racing has been a step behind. 

"For decades, the sight of a suffering horse on track with a catastrophic breakdown has done its damage to the sport," he said. "In today's world, with 24-hour news and social media, Thoroughbred racing is under a microscope like never before. The sport takes a daily pummeling on social media due to our Thoroughbreds basically being extorted for hundreds or thousands of dollars to "bail them out" of feedlots. A price and date are given, with the promise that the horse will be shipped to slaughter if these conditions aren't met. 

"Racing simply cannot have any stance other than slaughter being an unacceptable end for its horses. We cannot be seen as an industry driven only by greed, which disposes of its horses that are no longer useful to an inhumane ending. Most of us are more responsible than to knowingly send our horses to slaughter, but the few who do cast a very damning shadow upon us all."

Through the efforts of the NTWO, Porter envisions the solution to the "feedlot extortion" problem is to secure discarded horses before they end up in the hands of feedlot owners and slaughter buyers. In the short term, it may require watching over the small auctions where these horses are funneled and outbidding slaughter buyers. The long-term solution is to stop the pipeline flow at the source, which is at the track. 

"No track should knowingly allow or turn a blind eye to trainers on their grounds who are turning over horses to potential slaughter," Porter said. "The tracks who allow this are doing a great disservice to the sport."

The NTWO plans to work with tracks, The Jockey Club, and state governing bodies to revoke licensing and registration abilities for those who knowingly engage in practices that result in their horses ending up in feedlots or at slaughter plants. The organization will offer local resources to trainers and owners as alternatives. It will be there to help owners and trainers who find themselves in a bad situation, but insists it will not be used simply as a dumping ground for the unethical or inhumane horsemen. 

Several weeks ago, I wrote about this issue and the Herculean efforts of people like Dina Alborano, who continuously give of themselves to rescue as many horses as humanly possible from the kill pens, mainly through donations and the cooperation of local farms to house and help the horses recover from their ordeal. Now it is hoped all these efforts can be consolidated on a national scale through the work of the NTWO. It will investigate claims of abuse and bring help to horses in need.

Another area in which the NTWO will work is on-track deaths. 

"These events aren't just traumatic for the horse and their connections, but for onlooking fans," said Porter, who had to endure the agony of watching his filly Eight Belles suffer a fatal breakdown while pulling up after finishing second to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby. "Just one incident can drive a fan away from the sport forever--or worse, become a vocal critic of the sport. We will never be able to prevent all on-track deaths, as some are truly unforeseen accidents, but we can certainly reduce their incidence, and our vigilance may keep fans from turning away from us."

The industry has made strides in this area. The Jockey Club Equine Injury Database reported a catastrophic breakdown rate of 2.00 per 1,000 starts in its first year, 2009. In 2016 that number had been reduced to 1.54 per 1,000 starts. The rate for the 2017 racing season is expected to be released this month.

Porter said the organization will monitor which horsemen have high breakdown rates.

"Horsemen are aware of their horses' issues and make choices in how to deal with those issues, what activity they will require of the horse, and when they will stop on the horse.  The conscientious horsemen will make wise choices that don't endanger the lives and limbs of the horses as well as the riders and all those who could be in the path of a fallen horse. When the data shows that certain horsemen have higher-than-normal on-track deaths or permanent maiming, then these horsemen aren't being as conscientious as they should be. They are playing Russian roulette with the lives of horses and riders. For these horsemen, racing is not for them, and we will again work with the tracks, local racing authorities, and the Jockey Club to invoke penalties including revocation of licenses for these horsemen." 

As in all new projects, the plan is to start slowly and gradually expand, starting with one region at a time and gathering successful ideas from those regions. To start, the NTWO will be concentrating on the kill pens in Louisiana, which were alluded to in my last column in regard to the rescues of numerous horses with the help of Alborano and the many conscientious fans who donated money for their purchase.

Victoria Keith, executive vice president of Fox Hill Farm, got the ball rolling by going to one of the auctions to get a lay of the land and hopefully find the people to act as NTWO's agents in the state, covering tracks and training centers. 

"One of the people I met with was Rosie Napravnik, who I'd heard shared an interest in helping the horses in Louisiana," Keith said. "I told her I planned to go to Dominique's livestock auction in Baton Rouge on Monday, and she wanted to go with me. (Trainer) Larry Jones and his assistant George Barnes also planned to go."

I will let Keith tell the rest of this sad and harrowing adventure that would sicken anyone who loves horses and who makes a living from Thoroughbred racing. It was a sight that surely would inspire anyone to take action and help in any way they can.

"We arrived at Dominique's around 11:15, with the auction set to start at 12:00. The old wooden barn had dozens of pens with cows, goats, pigs, and of course horses in them.  Workers and visitors mostly made their way around by walking on rickety catwalks that ran just above the pen walls. We finally figured out how to get to the ground, and made our way among the pens. Larry went into the pens holding horses to check the lips of those who looked like they could be Thoroughbreds. It was sad. With just a few exceptions, the horses we were seeing were stunted, or starving, or injured. It was hard to look at this gorgeous Palomino who looked so kind yet had been dumped there with a left hind ankle that was swollen the size of two grapefruits. Or the yearling who was looking around showing the whites of his eyes in fear of his surroundings. 

"We weren't finding any Thoroughbreds yet, but trailers were still being pulled in.  Suddenly a couple horses showed up in the chute, and even from afar, we could easily see that Thoroughbreds had arrived. Those two were quickly joined by three more.  Eventually they were prodded down the aisle and driven into a pen. They scrambled in their racing plates over a concrete step-up into the pen, with one bay banging its head badly on this pipe that ran across the top of the stall doorway. Larry and Rosie went to find a way to get to their pen, while I looked over from the catwalk. Larry found the only way in, as he climbed over the pen fencing from outside the barn. Employees were watching and I thought we may get kicked out. One hollered at Larry and came rushing up to the pen. Surprisingly, he only asked that Larry pull off the twine ropes that were hanging off a few of their halters.

"The horses were frightened, unused to being put together in a pen, and not familiar with their surroundings. They were kicking and pushing their way around each other, and Larry was making his way through the horses, mindful to not get himself kicked. He finally caught hold of the halter of the first horse, a light gray horse. He lifted up the lip and read the tattoo to Rosie on the other side of the fence. She texted the number up to me and I looked it up on the Jockey Club site."

The team was able to put numbers to three horses and identify their names. The fourth horse eluded Jones and the fifth had an unreadable tattoo.

One horse, a 6-year-old gray or roan mare-white to the eye--had last raced Feb. 8, 2018 at Delta Downs and did not finish the race. Another, a 4-year-old gelding, had last raced Jan. 20 at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots. And the other was an unraced 4-year-old filly.

Keith continued, "The goats were the first to sell once the auction started. Then came the horses. A man who knew we were there had met up with us earlier, and he told us he'd come with the instructions to buy the five Thoroughbreds. After watching horse after horse after horse go through the ring, with almost all of them bought by Jacob Thompson, I let myself past this man and leaned down and told him, ‘Get them, I'll help out if you need it.' If they were prepared to outbid Thompson, I figured they planned to go to probably at least $1,200, but in the event there was a max budget on each, I was offering to make up the difference so that he could make another bid or two if need be.

"I went back to the pen and watched the inept attempts by the workers to drive these Thoroughbreds out of their pen. Instead of leading any of them by the halter or lead rope, they were being slapped on the hind ends with a mop. The result was the horses running side to side and around the pen, but not out the door. I went back to join Larry and Rosie to watch the Thoroughbreds go through. It took them awhile longer to get the horses there, but finally the first Thoroughbred came in. The bidding was fast, starting at $500 and going quickly back and forth at $25 increments between Jacob Thompson and the man who was to buy the Thoroughbreds. He outbid Jacob on three. For some reason, he let the one Thoroughbred who hadn't come right off the track go to Jacob Thompson for $500, while he paid about $1,500 each for the three he bought. We wondered where the white mare was. I headed back to the pen, and Rosie followed.

"I hurried down the catwalk, noting that a crowd had gathered around the pen. I was horrified when I got there and saw what was happening. They had devised a winch to get the mare out of the pen. A rope was attached to her halter, pulled out the pen door and run through a handle across the aisle. The rope was then pulled back into the pen next door."

Napravnik had caught the cruelty on video.

Keith continued, "I had called down from that catwalk twice to please not do that, that I'd come lead her out, but they wouldn't take me up on the offer.

(The mare) went through the ring bloodied, and the man again outbid Jacob Thompson for her. We exchanged numbers with the man and headed to our vehicles. We were saddened by all the poor horses we saw that day who would be heading to slaughter, still horrified by the treatment of Red Hot Sensation, but glad that four of the Thoroughbreds were safe and wouldn't be extorted on social media or possibly also end up on a truck if no one came through with their ‘bail.'"

Keith wants this experience shared with the public in the hope it will serve as a catalyst for action. She says this is what the industry to stop and what the NTWO is all about.

"The industry must provide security to our horses and give the help needed at the lower end (particularly) of the sport," she said. "We cannot leave it to others, as it's certainly not working that way. Nor is it their responsibility--it is the industry's responsibility."

Delta Downs closes this weekend, and the full brother with the same connections to the white mare runs on Friday, making it a perfect time to announce the formation of the NTWO.

The logical question is how is everything going to be implemented?

"We're starting one area at a time," Keith said. "Louisiana has the most need, so we're starting there. We are looking to line up as many agents as needed to represent us at the tracks, training centers, and livestock auctions where they may be run through. The need for us to man the auctions should decrease over time as we get everyone on board with turning over their horses to us instead of slaughter buyers and their middlemen."

In providing an example of how the organization will work, Keith said, "I've found the perfect person to be the track agent at Fair Grounds. I talk to the execs at Fair Grounds, tell them about our program and the assistance we're bringing, and ask them to be a ‘Member Track' of our organization. This means they: 1) have a no slaughter policy,  2) will allow our agent on the backside to interact with the trainers to offer our assistance in re-homing their horses and to put up posters in every barn giving our hotline number and other information (we plan on putting out health and safety and other informational articles/newsletters as well),  3) will work with us to find solutions to problems as they arise (such as a trainer who refuses to use our services and we're finding his horses in jeopardy, etc). We will also ask that they give us X number of stalls to house horses for those trainers who are so desperate that getting the horse out of his stall seems to be the deal maker or breaker. 

"It is expected that we will be talking with them and the local racing commissions to implement stricter policies that can result in not just the loss of stalls but the loss of the ability to race (either by a track refusing to accept an entry if that is legal for them to do so, and/or getting the racing commission to implement rules that result in suspension or revocation of licenses).

"Our track agent spends many/most mornings on the backside of the track, familiarizing him or herself with the trainers and their horses, talking about whether they have any horses in need, reminding of our existence and ability to help them, reminding them that if they stop in time, before they completely break the horse down, that we can sell the horse for them more quickly and for more money than if they wait to hand us over a broken down horse, etc. The agent should be a friend to all on the backside and there and ready to help."

Keith said the track agent is almost certainly going to be a paid position, and they are modeling the position after a woman who is known to re-home horses (but for profit, not as a non-profit) named Amy Paulus, who has been taking horses from Turfway and other places and re-homing about 600 horses a year, selling to sport horse trainers and riders, for an average of $1,500 per horse. She takes a commission, and the trainer/owner get the bulk of the sale.

"We plan to offer the same to our trainers/owners," Keith added. "Turn the horse over to our agent. The agent comes out to the barn and takes photos and video and posts the horse for sale on our website. Our organization will take a 20% commission with the remainder going to the owner/trainer. From that commission, we will be paying our agent and using the remainder to fund the program. Amy Paulus can refuse to take certain horses, while we cannot, so we will have more expenses. But we will be trying to sell the majority of the horses directly off the track to sport horse buyers and trainers, without having the expense of vanning to farms and stay at farms. Unfortunately, we may find ourselves being handed horses who require euthanasia as the most humane option for that horse and a trainer or owner unwilling to pay for it. In those cases, we have to do what's right for the horse.

"We will network with existing accredited or trusted vanning companies and farms and rescue/retraining organizations for layovers, quarantine, recuperation, and moving of horses. We expect to have to pay for their services, but also expect discounted prices.  Also, we will have one or more agents to represent us at the local livestock auction(s) near the Fair Grounds. Because this won't be nearly as time-consuming as our track and training center agents' job, these are far more likely to be volunteer positions. Our track agent may wish to be the agent at one or more auctions too.

Keith pointed out that horses coming right off the track aren't the only ones showing up at slaughter auctions. There are breeding farms who are likewise sending horses there.  The NTWO plans to talk to The Jockey Club about revocation of Stud Book privileges for those who knowingly dispose of their horses this way. These farms will be getting the word of the organization's existence and their hotline number to call for help, if needed.

Porter concluded by saying, "We are excited about the creation of the NTWO. It is past time that we had an organization that speaks for the horse in every area in which they need and deserve our protection. Let us never forget that we owe everything to the Thoroughbred."

The National Thoroughbred Welfare Organization may be reached at 859-227-5441.

Recent Posts


More Blogs