TRF Should Redefine Its Mission - By Reiley McDonald

(Originally published in the April 16, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

Reiley McDonald is the managing partner of Eaton Sales and served two years on the TRF board of directors.

 As most horsemen now know, Thoroughbred racing received a big black eye when a New York Times article recently accused the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation of allegedly neglecting the health and well-being of some, if not many, of the horses in its care. Their alleged condition is an appalling but not unexpected revelation to those who have been involved in the horse rescue community.

We can only hope the various articles written about the TRF will have significant positive impact on the organization and its ability to manage a rescue and retirement program effectively. But unless the TRF makes serious and fundamental changes in its mission statement and business model, it will fail. Those who support the TRF should demand immediate changes to what has heretofore been our flagship retirement charity, one that has received the majority of Thoroughbred rescue funding.

To address the present, one has to look at the TRF’s recent past. Unlike some would have you believe, its problems have not just sprung up in the last two years due to the economy. Critical problems existed as far back as early 2005 when its treasurer warned management and the board of directors that the charity was operating at a deficit. He projected the finances would become even more dire. Indeed, the TRF’s tax returns from 2005 to 2008 show it operated at an average annual deficit of $540,000 during that period. In 2005, the board (on which I served for two years) mandated that TRF management cap further intake of horses at just under 1,000 until such time as it was financially viable to accept more. Unbeknownst to some board members, the herd continued to increase to approximately 1,200 horses over the next year and has remained at that level, despite attrition.

Those of us who follow Thoroughbred retirement and adoption have heard numerous alleged stories of general neglect, lack of feeding, lack of worming, and insufficient farrier care at TRF facilities. The TRF has simply been unable to pay on time or, in some cases, at all for acceptable care. Yet as recently as a year ago, it continued to take in Thoroughbreds. We all want to help the horses, but the organization must be run like a business with accountability.

Every person who has volunteered to serve on the board of the TRF has had the best of intentions. However, the board has allowed management to run the organization into the ground. Where was the oversight when, despite the deficits, then-executive director Diana Pikulski’s salary went from $81,000 to $95,000 in 2008? She is passionate about the cause, but Pikulski directly oversaw the intake of horses, operations, and fundraising during the last five years of the TRF’s disintegration.

The TRF has found funding to continue veterinary inspections at its boarding facilities. While this is clearly the right short-term solution, it in no way addresses the fundamental problems. As an example, it is truly stunning that the TRF still has no humane euthanasia policy. The charity fights the legalization of slaughterhouses, yet has no articulated strategy for the humane relief of infirmed horses. During my tenure I became aware that acutely lame and severely ill horses were accepted into the program. Many would have been far more humanely treated had they been euthanized. Even worse, many aging herd residents have lived in pain under TRF care due to its impractical anti-euthanasia tendencies or simple lack of administrative oversight.

Equally important, the organization continues to operate under its original mission statement, now 27 years old. The statement needs to be updated to include, among other things, an emphasis on adoption. Additionally, the TRF should take less of a role in permanently boarding and maintaining horses. It is simply impossible for any outfit, even one that is well-funded and -staffed (unlike the TRF), to properly oversee and maintain more than 1,000 horses. The TRF should gradually decrease the herd size and increase support of the poorly funded satellite farms throughout the country that do a great job protecting Thoroughbreds on shoestring budgets. This is the real role for a “foundation.” The organization would realize far more widespread support with horsemen if it were to revamp its literal “dead end” approach to retiring horses.

The TRF is fortunate to have an astute businessman and horseman in Tom Ludt as its newly elected chairman of the board. I urge Tom and the board to listen to the wake-up call of the Times article, even if they are not in full agreement with its contents. Use the recent catastrophic press as a springboard for change that is difficult but necessary. If done, I believe the TRF will find many more supporters and a new life.

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