Off the Fast Track: Rescuing Racehorses

For many New Jersey racehorses, rescue and retraining is the only alternative to the slaughterhouse.

Paige Hurley of South Jersey Thoroughbred Rescue and Adoption with Herculean.
Saved: Paige Hurley of South Jersey Thoroughbred Rescue and Adoption with Herculean, a retrained thoroughbred she rides in show events.
Photo by Art Petrosemolo

Joey P, a dark brown, thoroughbred colt, was a Monmouth Park favorite winning his first five races and earning more than $1 million in seven years.

As his racing career was coming to a close in 2011, Joey P’s owner, John Petrini, and trainer, Ben Perkins, looked for a secure retirement for their Jersey-bred thoroughbred. With the help of Second Call, a non-profit thoroughbred adoption and placement organization, the horse was retrained and later placed at a racing stable in South Carolina. Now Joey P works as a lead pony, helping to prepare two year olds for racing careers.

“It was a win-win scenario,” says Laurie Lane, program director for Second Call, which is based at Monmouth Park in Oceanport. “Every thoroughbred at the end of a racing career should be so lucky,” she adds.

A typical horse has a life expectancy of 25 to 30 years. But the careers of horses bred for racing—thoroughbreds, standardbreds and quarter horses—can be as short as five years if genetic factors, injury or a lack of success work against the animal. At that point, they need a second career—and a new home. Sadly, many unwanted horses eventually end up in “kill pens” to be auctioned off to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada.

The numbers aren’t pretty. For thoroughbreds alone, some 21,000 foals are registered with the Jockey Club each year—a quarter million in the last decade. With only 100 thoroughbred tracks across the country—and just Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands, in New Jersey—that’s many more horses than are needed for racing. The result: Racehorses represent 10 percent of the more than 100,000 horses shipped to slaughterhouses each year. (There are no equine slaughterhouses in the United States and it is illegal to sell horsemeat for human consumption in this country.)

Racehorses that are fortunate enough to be rescued can be retrained as show horses, jumpers, hunters, trail horses, polo ponies or for pleasure riding. Horses unfit for retraining because of age or injury can be simply retired to safe homes.

The job or retraining falls to nonprofits like the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, launched in New Jersey in 1983 by Middletown resident Monique Koehler. The world’s oldest group providing rescue and retraining for thoroughbreds, TRF has placed 1,000 horses for adoption over three decades. It currently is caring for 950 thoroughbreds in its own facilities in conjunction with individual owners or organizations that will provide future homes for the horses, says vice president of external affairs Diana Pikulski, a New Jersey native.

There are nearly a dozen such organizations in New Jersey. Second Call, founded in 2013, is among the newest. The nonprofit rehabbed and retrained 20 horses for new careers last year. There also are for-profit businesses like Recycled Racehorses in Sewell, which owner Amanda McCleery says has retrained and placed 23 thoroughbreds this year.

Individuals also make a difference. Since 2008, the Florida philanthropist and horsewoman Victoria McCullough has purchased at auction 7,334 horses possibly destined for slaughter and provided them new homes and careers across the country, including New Jersey.

Another group, the Standardbred Retirement Foundation, headquartered in Millstone Township, is New Jersey’s major nonprofit rescuing standardbred horses, which run on harness-racing tracks such as Meadowlands and Freehold in New Jersey. Jude Bokman and Paula Campbell, wife of hall of fame harness driver John Campbell, have operated SRF for 25 years, placing 2,600 horses—112 in the past year—for adoption. They currently have 197 awaiting new homes. “Standardbreds, like thoroughbreds, are versatile horses, and can be retrained for a variety of second careers,” Bokman says.

Before any retraining can begin, thoroughbreds, which tend to be high-strung, must adjust to a slower pace. No longer galloping and training daily for the race circuit, they are taught to walk in a paddock and socialize with other horses. Similarly, standardbreds are taught to shorten their gait from their natural longer stride, Bokman says. They also learn to be saddled and carry riders.

All not-for profit horse rescue groups scramble for funding. Care for SRF’s 200 horses runs $150 to $400 per animal per month, which the foundation raises through donations, grants, a golf outing and other events. Second Call receives most of its $50,000 budget from the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association (NJTHA) through a $5 contribution from every Monmouth Park race purse.

Mike Musto, executive director of the NJTHA, says Monmouth Park owners and trainers realize they have a responsibility to find safe places for their horses that are done racing. “Having Second Call right on the backstretch makes it easy for our horsemen to do the right thing,” he says.

There are reasons for optimism for thoroughbred rescue nationwide—and especially in New Jersey. In 2011, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association formed a safety committee that works with U.S. racetracks to address health and safety issues, including thoroughbred retirement. The NTRA encouraged establishment of the purse-donation program that helps support organizations like Second Call. Similar funding programs are under discussion by standardbred horsemen and harness tracks.

Rescue stories can be heartwarming. Second Call recently rescued a Jersey-bred filly named High Maintenance Gal who had been given up for adoption at age two. The filly was awaiting sale for slaughter at the New Holland Sales Stable in Pennsylvania in early October when Bev Strauss, executive director and cofounder of MidAtlantic Horse Rescue, identified her thoroughbred lip tattoo. Strauss purchased the filly for $700 for Second Call.

Once ready, High Maintenance Gal was moved to Hill Haven Farm in Millstone Township for rehab. Lane, Second Call’s president Jane Gilbert and Hill Haven Farm manager Eileen Munyak see a future for High Maintenance Gal as a jumper.

For retraining, High Maintenance Gal could be turned over to an organization such as South Jersey Thoroughbred Rescue and Adoption at Still Pond Farm in Moorestown. “Horses are ridden in the paddock, on trails, and turned out with other horses before being taught specific skills necessary to be a jumper or show horse,” says SJTRA trainer and director Erin Hurley. The process can take up to a month or more. “Every thoroughbred is different,” Hurley says.

While retraining, Hurley uses her network to help find adoption options. When everything works well, a racing thoroughbred can move direct from the track or through rescue, rehab and training to a new, productive life with an adopted family in just a few months.

Horse rescue is a major commitment. Monthly expenses for keeping a horse average $300 to $500. Of course, that’s a bargain compared to thoroughbreds in training. Their high-protein diet, plus veterinarian, farrier and other expenses, boost the cost to a $100 a day.

Those involved in horse rescue and re-training look to the day when all horses have options for a second career, sanctuary or humane euthanasia. Slaughterhouses, they believe, should be banned everywhere. “We can only hope and keep working toward that day,” Lane says.

Freelance writer/photographer Art Petrosemolo specializes in stories and images of horse racing, sailboat racing and other action sports and events.

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