I recently wrote an article for TBH MarketWatch -- Blood-Horse Publications' speciality newsletter for Thoroughbred professionals -- that focuses on the aftermath of a runner's career as a racehorse. While I was researching the issue, a conversation with Liz Harris, executive director of Thoroughbred Charities of America (TCA), really got my mind working overtime on the larger subject of retired OTTBs (off-track Thoroughbreds), many of which fall through the cracks and wind up at horse rescues. While TCA is primarily involved in oversight of 200-plus rescue and retraining groups, Liz's real passion is the "education" mandate that TCA operates under, and the idea of preventing the problem of horses needing rescue.
Amen -- someone in the Thoroughbred industry who's proactive!
The general public perceives "unwanted horses" as the responsibility of Thoroughbred owners and breeders. While that stance is mostly unfair (Thoroughbreds are only a fraction of the problem), the political reality is that this is becoming a crisis for Thoroughbred racing. We have a short window of opportunity to actually do something about it, or we're going to become the target of government regulation. And regulation -- by the U.S. Congress, a group that is both ignorant of horses and prone to mismanagement, in addition to having motives not favorable to horsemen -- is a worst-case scenario.
So how can we prevent the problem and avoid contributing to the numbers of unwanted horses in the U.S.?
Liz Harris promotes a true industry response to this problem, claiming that "the real solution is for the industry itself to look at every layer and fund for this," including "incremental funding from the beginning." Meaning that an internal regulatory force needs to collect mandatory fees to fund retirment solutions.
At this point I should make it clear I'm a fiscal conservative when it comes to government. I don't believe government is the solution to most problems. I maintain that people are better off when issues are handled locally... in effect, self-governance. And what I see as the necessary solution for Thoroughbred racing is self-regulation. So I don't want to hear complaints about "big brother" and how much any new regulations will harm the individual owner or breeder. I used to be opposed to mandated participation in a racehorse retirement fund, but I've realized that lIke it or not, it's the only way to save the sport.
That brings up some questions:
What organization should take the responsibility for collecting these fees and administering the retirement programs? Where should fees be assessed?
Well, the answer should be simple. The Jockey Club needs to tie this into the registration process. Collecting $150 per foal at registration would net about $5 million per year to start the retirement fund -- enough cash to maintain about 2,000 retirees for the year while also putting a handful of the most promising horses through retraining for new careers. (The new fee would also have the likely side effect of reducing the number of foals bred each year -- an annual birthrate that stands at around 35,000 right now, an unsustainable number.) But The Jockey Club has spent the last few decades moving away from its role as a registry administrator and has focused on its for-profit subsidiaries. The organization has failed in its mandate to represent the industry's best interests. The Thoroughbred industry is desperate for a leader that is not rife with conflicts of interest and motives of self-gain.
So assuming we can get around the issue of industry leadership -- granted, an imposing task! -- we'll have a system that requires breeders to pay into the system. That's a good start. What else?
How about racehorse owners? A $25 fee per entry would generate over $10 million annually (based on the 50,000+ races run each year in the States). For the average horse, that amounts to $325 in lifetime starting fees (based on the North American average of 13 career starts).
(You might have noticed I've left out some important groups -- the racetracks and bettors, sales companies and consignors, stallion syndicates, and trainers. The reason is simple: these groups would simply pass along the new fees to the horse owners. I want to see a system that's as transparent as possible, and not one that introduces multiple levels of new bureaucracy.)
Will new regulations unfairly penalize the breeders and owners who are already taking responsibility for their horses?
Yes. Let's get that off the table right now. Even with $15 million in retirement funding each year as outlined above we're looking at care for only about 6,000 horses, and retraining for a fraction of those. We'll still count on owners and breeders and fans and horse lovers to continue supporting the majority of Thoroughbred retirees. Meaning that responsible owners and breeders are paying into the system without directly benefiting from it. It's the sacrifice necessary for all governments -- but in this case, the benefit is a better chance for the sport to survive.
Will these new fees solve the problem?
No, not entirely. Until we can find useful second careers for all retired horses each year, the problem is really one of overproduction. We'll still have to tackle the issues of abandonment and slaughter. We'll have to discuss the pros and cons of elective euthanasia. We'll have to deal with the inevitable problem of unethical "rescue" groups. And we'll still need to come up with a solution for the fact that most horses retired today are removed from the system not because of age or slowing down, but because of injury. It's more expensive to rehabilitate lame horses, and decidedly harder to place them in new careers.
I hope you'll offer some feedback on this issue. Are the fees I've cited reasonable? Are there other solutions that would work better? I'm looking for real-world scenarios here (it's not reasonable to make breeders responsible for horses after they've been sold to a new owner, and it's not realistic to think that sales companies or racetracks will foot the bill out of their profits). Are there untapped outlets for retrained/retrainable Thoroughbreds that we can start to take advantage of? Is there any way to entice owners/trainers to retire their runners before they sustain career-ending injuries?
It's not just recent racehorse retirees that need to be considered. A while back, we discussed how to make the transition easier for a broodmare if she's removed from breeding duties: 5 Easy Ways to Improve a Broodmare's Life.
TCA is an affiliate of Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, the parent company of Blood-Horse Publications.