Tuesday, 25 August 2009
Around the Final Turn and Heading Home - What Happens to Racing Horses After Their Career Winds Down?
LInk to Article
August 24, 2009
Around the Final Turn, and Heading for a Home
By JOE DRAPE
GEORGETOWN, Ky. — Tour of the Cat looks at home here in this prime patch of Kentucky bluegrass. Among about 50 fellow retirees are some of the most revered names in horse racing, like Sunshine Forever and Ogygian. These horses won tens of millions of dollars on the racetrack.
Tour of the Cat belongs with them. He is a multiple graded-stakes winner who earned more than $1.1 million over a nine-year career. Still, he is lucky to be here.
Just last month, Tour of the Cat, 11, was at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., competing at racing’s lowest levels. He had at least one sore ankle and raced for the 79th time, managing to beat only one other horse.
His odyssey from bottom-level horse to unlikely stakes champion and back again illustrates how many in the racing industry routinely overlook their responsibility to aging animals.
Tour of the Cat might have made an 80th start if not for a group of racehorse devotees who know one another mostly through the Internet and who share a conviction that old horses should be retired with dignity. The group found a sympathetic horse owner, Maggie Moss, who claimed Tour of the Cat for the rock-bottom price of $5,000 on its behalf.
She then shipped him here to Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm.
“It was like finding Babe Ruth sleeping under a bridge,” said Michael Blowen, the farm’s president and founder. “They breed 36,000 of them every year, and three years later only one of them is going to win the Kentucky Derby. The question is, What happens to the rest of them?”
At least 3,000 racehorses come off the track annually in need of homes, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation estimates, and only about one-third of them are as fortunate as Tour of the Cat. Many more are abandoned, euthanized or slaughtered. Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, wound up slaughtered in Japan in 2002 after failing as a stallion. Even though the federal government closed the last United States slaughterhouse in 2007, horses are regularly sold at auction and trucked to slaughter in Mexico or Canada.
In fact, it was the appearance this year of racehorses belonging to the prominent breeder and owner Ernie Paragallo in a New York kill pen, one step from being slaughtered, that led to an investigation and subsequent charges, on 35 counts of animal cruelty. Paragallo pleaded not guilty, but nearly 100 of his horses were taken from his Center Brook Farm, south of Albany.
“The bottom end of the rung can be hideous for a horse,” said Hal Handel, chief operating officer of the New York Racing Association. “Collectively it’s the responsibility of the industry. That’s the racetracks, the breeders, the owners, you know, everyone who makes a living off or touches the animal owes the animal something back.”
The Derby dreams of Tour of the Cat and his owner, Susan Gannon, ended in the spring of 2001 when he finished a well-beaten second in the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah Park. Even though Gannon was new to the racing game, she understood that Tour of the Cat, a gelding she had claimed for $25,000, was developing too slowly to be a Derby horse.
She instead chose a diet of modest stakes races in Florida. Her plan worked, and by the time he was 6, Tour of the Cat was a consistent stakes winner and even ran in a $2 million stakes in Dubai. “I was blessed to have him,” Gannon said, her voice cracking. “He took me all over the world.”
But his long decline began late that year, when Tour of the Cat injured his right front foot and was turned out to pasture to heal for 17 months. Now, Gannon wishes she had left him there.
Tour of the Cat was 8 — an advanced age for an American thoroughbred to be racing — when he returned to the track in 2006. He was no longer a stakes horse but a durable and popular claiming horse on the Florida circuit. In claiming races, which are staples of everyday racing, any licensed owner can buy any horse running at an established price. On Nov. 29, 2008, that price was $16,000.
“It was supposed to be his last race,” said Gannon, who lives on a small farm with a handful of mares in Ocala, Fla., “and then I was bringing him home.”
Instead, Tour of the Cat was claimed by David Jacobson, who had had success with older accomplished horses in New York.
“They are professional, seasoned,” Jacobson said. “If you put them in with cheaper horses, their back class shows.”
Jacobson’s subsequent campaigning of the horse was noticed by horse rescue advocates. In a span of 36 days in January, Tour of the Cat raced three times in New York and once in Maryland. He won twice and finished second and fourth at the lowest level of the sport.
“I was seeing things on the message boards about this 10-year-old horse with a wonderful record that deserved better than getting the last bit of juice squeezed out of him,” said Beverly Strauss, executive director of Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue, which usually buys slaughter-bound racehorses.
In June, Strauss became more concerned when she heard from Dr. Margaret Ohlinger, the veterinarian at Finger Lakes racetrack in upstate New York, that Tour of the Cat was on the grounds and no longer fit to race. Ohlinger is also co-founder of the Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Adoption Program, which is run in collaboration between horsemen and the track’s management.
Ohlinger scratched Tour of the Cat hours before a June 27 race, although he was the favorite.
“His left front tendon was swelled, hot and sore to the touch,” Ohlinger said. “He was too thin, and his muscle condition didn’t look like he was in racehorse condition. It was a disservice to the horse, the rider and the other riders to let him run.”
She discovered that Tour of the Cat had been scratched in the spring by the track veterinarian at Aqueduct, and that Jacobson intended to send him to run at Presque Isle Downs. Strauss orchestrated a $2,500 offer for the horse to be retired, but Jacobson declined.
“I believed he was in good condition, and had some races left,” Jacobson said.
Strauss contacted Moss, an Iowa-based lawyer who has a large stable of horses, who made the claim with money from Internet supporters.
“We had hoped the industry would take care of cases like this,” Ohlinger said. “But it’s really the fans who do not know much about horses who are doing right by most of these horses.”
Some in the racing industry have recently increased the focus on finding second homes for retired thoroughbreds. The New York Racing Association, for example, raised $125,000 to work with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation to try to find homes for all former racehorses in New York State.
Tour of the Cat, meanwhile, has put on 50 pounds and is getting used to ranging at his leisure. It will cost Old Friends about $2,000 a year to keep him at the farm, said Blowen, its founder. He remains mystified why a multibillion-dollar agribusiness does not do better by its stars.
“Without them, there’s nothing,” Blowen said. “There is none of this bluegrass, no horse business, no racing, no jockeys, there’s nothing. There’s no feed people or veterinarians or anything. It’s all because of them that everyone’s here. And at the end of the day, we can’t just treat them like trash and throw them to side of the road.”
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company