A Cautionary Tale - By Evan Hammonds

The front-page news of the week is the decision of Churchill Downs to nix patrons at the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1). Churchill officials—with a calculated best guess—took their best shot back in March in moving the Run for the Roses from May 2 to Sept. 5. However, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pour cold water over large gatherings. Even horseplayers have their limits.

A bigger concern for breeders and commercial sellers is protecting horses in this uncertain environment. A big fear—and a legitimate one—is to ensure that the care of horses is not overlooked. Much like the industry experienced during the Great Recession, there is greater potential for unwanted horses during tough economic times. Consider the fate of one such commercial—and very conscientious—breeder who checked in with us recently.

Early this summer this person had a 23-year-old mare, the dam of a yearling selling at Keeneland this September, whom she did not breed in 2019 or this year.

“The time had come to just stop,” we were told. “Honestly, I was going to put her down after she’d had a good day and not wait until it was a sleet storm and I couldn’t get her up.

“Late this spring a friend told me she had a mare die that she had in foal to a nice stallion and the farm had told her she could carry the season to a different mare. I said she was welcome to give my mare—at 23—a try. However, she had not been able to get her to cycle in a timely manner.

“One day a man that she had gotten a nurse mare from came to pick up a nurse mare,” the story continued. “She had gotten mares from him in the past and never had any questions about his taking care of them. Coincidentally, I had gotten a nurse mare from the same guy. The mare was in good flesh; she was obviously well cared for. Later she told me she had given the mare to him to be used as a nurse mare, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s OK.’ Neither one of us had any reason to question the guy.

“In July I got a text from someone that the mare had been found at a ‘kill auction.’ I thought that didn’t happen in the U.S. anymore, but there is a lot I don’t know. I was horrified. I was in contact with them and told them, ‘Yes, it was my mare. What can I do to help?’

“Come to find out, a mare that belongs to another friend of mine was in the same pen. She had given her mare to the same guy to use, according to the story, as a nurse mare next year. While I had been happy that my mare would have the opportunity to be a mother again because she loved being a mother, I was unhappy to see that she was thin and headed for the killers.

“When I got the original text, I called the guy and got pretty up in arms about it, and he said ‘no…I tried to get her in foal, so I gave her to so-and-so guy to make her a ‘blood donor,’ which, was another thing I didn’t know anything about. It didn’t ring true that he tried and tried to get her in foal…it had only been a month. I didn’t believe him, but I don’t have any proof of anything.”

It isn’t the first time we’ve heard a tale like this, and it illustrates how the best intentions don’t always pan out as planned.

“I didn’t give away this horse to see it go down this road,” the breeder said. “It is amazing how easy it is for that to happen.”

Thankfully, the mare was rescued and is now living in Virginia.

While we’d like to believe there is an owner for every horse, the reality is there isn’t…and that fact might be magnified because of COVID-19-related factors. There will be plenty of people looking for free horses and plenty of people wanting to give horses away. It’s a scary proposition.

“I would love to put an end to this man’s underhanded business dealings, but I’m not capable of doing that,” the breeder said. “I don’t have an answer to unwanted horses. But if I can make people aware of what the end result could easily be, then possibly I’ve saved one horse.”

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