Monday, August 31, 2009

Of Rain and Horses

I spent a wonderful, albeit soggy weekend in Saratoga Springs these past three days. Turnout for the 140th running of the Shadwell Travers Stakes (gr. 1) was great even given the weather, and the horse fans in Saratoga didn't let the downpour dampen their enthusiasm. Summer Bird put in an impressive show under jockey Kent Desormeaux in the Travers, winning over a soppy, sloppy track by 3 1/2 lengths, and besting the Travers Day favorite, Quality Road. With his victory he also strode in the hoofsteps of his sire Birdstone, who accomplished the Belmont/Travers winning combination in 2004.

Thanks to several gracious connections I spent part of Sunday morning in the Saratoga Stakes barn chatting with several trainers, most notably Tim Ice (Summer Bird) and Chip Wooley (Mine That Bird). I also got to peek in and visit with thier celebrity charges, and was pleased to see that Summer Bird looked remarkably fit and happy the day after his big win. He displayed none of the penchant for haughty self-promotion one might expect from a multiple champion, happily munching the carrots that we brought for him and giving me affectionate muzzle rubs while we took his picture. Sunday's weather proved superb, a classic cool, clear Saratoga day, capped off by the afternoon's $400,000 Personal Ensign Stakes (gr. 1) for the ladies. The 4 year old filly Icon Project won the race by a stunning 13 1/4 lengths to send Travers weekend out on a thrilling note.

And with that another Saratoga summer is officially behind me. Luckily the Quarter Horses will be waiting at the in-gate before too long, and I will get to indulge my favorite period of the horse showing season.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Heading Down the Work Week Homestretch

It's Travers weekend in Saratoga tomorrow, so let's hope that a little sun peeks through and keeps things dry. A quick rundown of the end of the week's Horsebites:

  • Racing fans in Saratoga emitted a collective groan on Tuesday over news that Derby winner Mine That Bird is still on the mend from his epigilottal surgery and won't be contending Saturday's Shadwell Travers Stakes. What began as a Travers match-up sent straight from equine sports marketing heaven (all three Triple Crown Stakes winners in the same race) has now dwindled down to a field of 7 less press-centric horses, of which Quality Road is currently favored to win. While NYRA originally predicted a Travers Day customer population of around 50,000, it is likely that the diminished card, along with Saturday's rainy, chilly forecast, will turn away a number of casual Travers fans.
  • A great opportunity has just been announced for young people looking to break into the professional side of the equine industry. The Kentucky Horse Council will be holding a seminar in Georgetown, KY entitled "Your Future With Horses" on November 14th, 2009. The event will feature industry professionals discussing their chosen fields and career paths, and provide college students the opportunity to make decisions about equine related majors, internships and career goals.
  • What recession? The National Reining Horse Association just announced that entries for its 2009 NRHA Futurity have totaled 799 thus far, the second highest number of horses entered in the competition's history. While this means competition will be stiff, it is a good sign that people are going ahead and showing their horses and investing in their industry even with the economy in its current suffering state.
  • And a timely update to the Thoroughbred retirement story from my last post: The recently incepted NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance has formed a Subcommittee on Aftercare to bring leaders in the Thoroughbred world together in pursuit of a better solution to the retirement/aftercare problem. Mike Ziegler, executive director of the Safety and Integrity Alliance had this to say about the process: "Through cohesiveness and cooperation among all parties, we think we can create a model that can make it easier for racetracks, owners, and others to provide retired Thoroughbreds with a happy and productive life after their racetrack days are over." This is an excellent step in the right direction for the industry, and I hope it will bring about real and committed change.

      Wednesday, August 26, 2009

      Gone But Not Forgotten

      An interesting article in the New York Times Monday about the state of the country's racehorse retirement system. The article details the dramatic legal battle required to, in essence, rescue 11-year-old thoroughbred Tour of the Cat from the track after he became unfit for racing. The horse's owner at the time, David Jacobson, claimed him at age 10 and campaigned him well past his prime, entering him in progressively less competitive races until animal welfare authorities took note and forced his retirement. While this case ultimately ended on a positive note for Tour of the Cat, it underscores the shallowness of the resources allocated in New York state and across the country for the retirement of racehorses who have fullfilled their duty on the track, and the resistance by some in the industry to deciding when enough is enough for their older charges.

      My theory on the matter is that every horse is built physically and mentally to do a certain job, and if the horse has the spirit and aptitude he can excel at that job for many years. Every breed register and show roster and racing season can attest to the fact that there are horses who continue to love their work and compete injury free well into the golden years of their career. 10-year-old racehorse Evening Attire, 25-year-old endurance horse Tala, and 16-year-old Quarter Horse racehorse Silent Cash Dasher all prove that older horses can and do remain competitive if they are properly maintained.

      The question though is how to determine when a horse is past its competitive prime and would best be served by either retirement or a switch to a less demanding discipline, and how to ensure that resources are allocated to allow that transition. As the NYT article points out, 3000 horses need after-track placement every year, but the racing industry is ill-equipped to process more than a third of those horses into retirement or rehabilitation. Many end up euthanized or slaughtered due to a profound lack of any good exit strategy. Entities like NYRA have recently stepped up their commitment to ensuring the health and safety of the retirees upon which its livelihood once depended, but even those efforts (as the NYT article points out, NYRA recently raised $125,000 to go towards helping the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation retire New York bred horses) seem paltry given the millions of dollars often won and traded when those same horses are in their prime. Perhaps legislation should be introduced on behalf of these animals to guarantee that a certain percentage of racetrack/farm/breeder income be earmarked every year for the appropriate retirement of their animals. This would require a stronger chain of responsibility from breeder to owner to retirement, but could ultimately result in lessening the sense that certain sectors of the equine industry are concerned more with return on investment than with welfare.

      Tuesday, August 25, 2009

      Looking Past the Travers

      Big news in the horse racing world this week as Rachel Alexandra's contingent has decided not to run the filly in this weekend's Shadwell Travers Stakes (gr. 1) at Saratoga, saving her instead for the Woodward Stakes (gr. 1) next weekend. The New York Racing Association has sweetened the Woodward considerably to draw top level contenders to compete with Rachel, by increasing the race's purse from $500,000 to a sizable $750,000. Should she add the Woodward to her impressive list of wins, "Alexandra the Great" would be a prime 2009 Horse of the Year possibility by year's end. No need to fear that the Travers will go uncontested by the big guns however - Derby winner Mine That Bird (slated to run, though currently recovering from throat surgery) and Belmont winner Summer Bird will be among the top class draw set to compete for the 140th running of Saturday's historic stakes race.

      Other notable Horsebites:

      • To mark its long association with, and high population in the State of Texas, officials there have declared the American Quarter Horse to be the Texas state horse. The legendary stock horse has a long history of breeding in the state. This commemoration gives the breed recognition for the indelible stamp it has laid on Texas cow culture. Will the Thoroughbred now be commemorated as the official state horse of Kentucky?
      • As an almost inevitable result of the constricted economic climate, the Jockey Club has predicted that next spring's Thoroughbred foal crop will total about 30,000 babies, the smallest crop on record since 1977. The number of mares bred has declined yearly since 2006, to meet the tight economy's lessening demand for new bloodstock.
      • One of the summer circuit's biggest competitions got underway this weekend in Bridgehampton, NY, with the beginning of the 2009 Hampton Classic. The 34th Classic, home to the NY region's most distinguished show jumping and hunter horse competitions, will continue through this Sunday, August 30th.

      Tuesday, August 18, 2009

      Equine Advocacy

      I have considered myself to be an "equine advocate" throughout my equestrian life. I maintain a vested interest in horse welfare and upkeep, and often use this blog to report on ethical issues afflicting various equine industries. Unfortunately, the equine world regularly deals with bad press concerning the questionable tactics used by some when raising, training and exhibiting its four legged charges. It was therefore with considerable happiness that I read dressage great Jane Savoie's recent article on equine advocacy in Dressage Today. Her article challenges us as horseowners to look out for our equine friends even when well meaning professionals or instructors might encourage us to train them in less savory ways.

      This brings to mind a moment in my own horse history when my trainer, while watching me lunge my somewhat headstrong QH gelding, advised me to attach a length of bicycle chain beneath his noseband to help put on his brakes. This was in the earliest years of my horse ownership, and I had not yet encountered any of the natural horsemanship techniques that later laid the foundations for the style of riding and training that I still follow. I knew nonetheless that chaining my horse into lower gear wasn't going to do either of us a favor. He might have done well with a few lessons in "Lunging for Respect," but he certainly wasn't going to suffer metal bites on his nose. Since those first days of ownership, I have never taken lightly my role as an equine advocate, and Jane Savoie's article reminds all of us that we share a responsibilty for empathetic horse husbandry.

      Friday, August 14, 2009

      Abused Horses are the Recession's Newest Victims

      It's no small secret that strained financial conditions can destabilize sociological conditions throughout all tiers of society. There is evidence that this recession has led to an uptick in retail related crimes, white collar and business related crimes, and potentially violent crimes, although that correlation is less black and white.

      For animal owners, the recession has already posed ethical queries over how to attend to family horses, dogs, etc. when the family doesn't have the funds to continue caring for them. I posted last year about a disturbing trend that emerged right at the start of the recession, in which owners were taking to abandoning horses and other animals to potentially die of starvation rather than arrange for them to be taken on by shelters. This year, the mind-blowing swath of horse slaughters in Miami-Dade County, Florida (apparently motivated by the blackmarket sale of horsemeat), an intentional poisoning of a herd of Saddlebred horses in California, a knife attack on a Hanoverian gelding in the U.K., and the egregious neglect of an entire farm of racehorses in upstate New York, highlight what may very well be a worldwide, recession oriented upswing in cruelty against horses.

      Is the tense enconomic climate motivating this violence? Is the anxiety of financial distress spurring otherwise normal people to take out their frustrations on these vulnerable animals? Animal care workers from Scotland to Idaho seem to think so, and these recent sad examples in the equine world certainly suggest the same.

      Wednesday, August 12, 2009

      Beating the Dog Days

      Ahh, the dog days of August. They've finally descended down upon New York City like a hazy, shimmering (smoggy) cloud. It had been hard to know whether summer had even come at all given June and July's relentlessly water logged weeks, but now, with temperatures forecast into the high 80s all this week, there's no denying it.

      The tail end of summer, even with its attendant humidity and fly control issues, is still a great time to be at the barn. I can't even begin to count the lazy summer afternoons I've spent watching horses graze, or the training sessions timed just so as to catch that sweet spot as a hot day fades into a cool, breezy evening.

      With the return of summer's heat, though, do come additional horsecare caveats to be kept in mind. Trailering horses to and from shows and trail dates is already strenuous enough without the added burden of potentially high heat and humidity within and outside the trailer. It is important that trailering stints are timed so as to allow a horse adequate rest and recuperation when temperatures climb, and that water is offered as often as possible.

      A horse drinks, on average, 5-6 gallons of water a day, without the attendant stress of higher temperatures, and water loss due to increased sweating. Some horses are particularly finicky about drinking on the road or from foreign water sources, so dehydration can set in rapidly and last for several days. Trailering is also akin in terms of energy expenditure to moving at a walk for the same period of time, as the horse works inside to balance himself. He may therefore be inclined to drink more due to this exertion. As you travel with your animal, make sure to offer water at regular intervals (The AHSA recommends every four hours or so), and consider flavoring the water with sports drink powder or some of the readily available flavor additives currently marketed for equine athletes.