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.

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