When he crossed the finish line first at the 1968 Kentucky Derby, the thought of Ferdinand ending up in a slaughterhouse would have seemed ridiculous. When Exceller beat Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup on his way to earning more than $1.5 million over the course of his career, no one could have imagined that he too would end up on the cutting room floor. But each did. And every year, thousands of injured, non-competitive, or retired race horses meet the same fate as these two champions did.
The biggest problem that ex-racers face when their careers are over is that there are so many of them. The few that have good blood lines and good racing records will be sent stud or to be a brood mare. But what happens to the rest of them? Unfortunately, not all owners care about what happens to their horses after they are finished racing. That is why many of them end up in slaughter houses and at bottom-of-the-barrel horse auctions.
Fortunately, in the past 15 years, steps have been taken to protect ex-racehorses, and several organizations have been founded to find good homes for these horses. Two of the largest organizations with bases in Michigan are the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses, known more commonly as CANTER, and the New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program.
CANTER was founded in Michigan in 1997 by Thoroughbred enthusiast Jo Anne Normile, who was racing her two homebred Thoroughbreds. Thoroughbreds are a breed of horse developed in England that excell in flat racing and other physically demanding equestrian sports. Normile was also serving on the Michigan Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protection Board, the agency that represents the 1,200 + Thoroughbred race trainers and owners. The initial idea for CANTER came to Normile after she received several requests from trainers and owner to help find non-racing homes for their older, injured, or non-competitive horses. Since 1997, CANTER has grown to include locations in New England, Pennsylvania, the Mid-Atlantic, Ohio and Illinois.
The New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program was established in 1992 and has since placed over 2,000 retired Thoroughbred and Standardbred race horses in carefully screened and permanent homes. Although they are based in Ohio, New Vocations has a farm in Saline, Mich., that serves the Michigan market.
Screening homes before releasing a horse to them is something that New Vocations finds is a necessity. Ex-racehorses are not for everyone, and the staff at New Vocations wants to find suitable homes for all their horses with a rider who can give them the training needed to bring them along properly.
“It is the policy at New Vocations not to allow first time horse owners adopt,” the center says on their website. “The exception would be an individual with extensive experience who would be riding under the supervision of a professional. It is very important for these horses to be handled by experienced, confident people in order to make a successful transition from track to pleasure.”
One local rider who has worked extensively with ex-racehorses is Shari Wolke, a student at Michigan State University. Since she was in her teens, she has owned and ridden retired race horses. Her first, whom she no longer owns, was a jumper named Dennis The Menace. She trained her next ex-race horse, Tuck, in Dressage. She recently adopted Lord Kenmer (affectionately known as Kenny), her third ex-racehorse, from New Vocations in Ohio.
“I love working with ex-racers,” Wolke said. “They’re exciting. Plus, by the time we get them, they are already trained in the trailer, with baths, clippers, and other things that some other horses aren’t great at.”
Wolke is currently training Kenny in Dressage and is beginning to bring him into the world of Three Day Eventing.
“He’s doing really well,” she said. “We’re still dealing with some issues – mainly the rapidity of his canter – but all in all, I’m really happy with him.”
Wolke plans to show Kenny in Dressage and some combined events (Dressage and Jumping) this year.
Aside from Thoroughbred ex-racehorses, the other ex-racers that New Vocations deals with are Standardbreds. Although they are not as well known as Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds are a breed of horse famous for their trotting and pacing races in harness. Many of the racetracks in Michigan are designed for harness racing.
Like Thoroughbreds, Standardbred ex-racers often find themselves in trouble after their racing careers are over. But New Vocations has begun working to correct that by opening up their stalls to Standardbreds as well.
Interestingly enough, Howell is home to a Standardbred racer who won more than $100,000 on the track and set several track and lifetime records during his racing career. His name is Q Card and he now calls Innisfree Equestrian Center home. Innisfree Equestrian Center is a branch of Camp Innisfree, a Girl Scout camp owned and operated by the Girl Scout Council of Metro Detroit.
Q, as he is known by the staff at Innisfree, was donated to the Equestrian Center about five years ago, after 12 years on the harness track. Although he is not yet used in lessons, the staff is currently working with Q so he can start being used in the summer and fall.
Unfortunately, the problems facing the unlucky retired racers are not widely known by people outside of the horse industry. But in 2005, equestrian author Bill Heller shed light to the American public about what really happens behind the scenes for retired racers when he published After The Finish Line: The Race To End Horse Slaughter In America.
Heller’s book features the story of Ferdinand, the realities of horse racing, CANTER and the other organizations that help retired racers, as well as other issues that arise with older racers. Nick Zito, a famous Thoroughbred trainer and two time Kentucky Derby winner, thinks that Heller’s book is a much needed addition to the racing industry.
“This is a book that tells the terrible truth about what really takes place with these animals,” he said in a statement on CANTER’s website. “I truly believe that this book will have an impact.”
Local equestrian Shari Wolke shows her ex-racehorse, Tuck, in a Dressage competition last summer.
Photo Courtesy of Shari Wolke.