The Recycling of an American Racehorse: From Slaughter to Rescue

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Nothing moves me more than the sight of a thoroughbred race horse running at full gallop. It's what they're born to do. If they're not racing to the winner's circle, they're making more race horses to thrill and chill us, whether it's to the wagering window or just for the sake of watching them run. If that was all there is to the story, it would be a perfect world. We could just clink our julep glasses and wade through a vast sea of fashionable hats and stogie smoke to cash that winning ticket

Thoroughbred farms are an agricultural business, however, and not quite so interested in romanticism. Instead of turning out plant crops, they are turning out horse crops. About 37,000 thoroughbred foals are born and registered in North America every year on top of the approximately 140,000 worldwide. It doesn't take a mathematician to see there are more babies born each year than will ever see a winner's circle. Some may have a mediocre career, some will cost more to feed than they bring back in winnings. Others will not perform as studs or broodmares either. So what happens to all these breath-taking creatures when their racing career is over or never even begins?

From this...
From this...
... to this...
... to this...
... to this kill pen...
... to this kill pen...
... to this slaughter house.
... to this slaughterhouse.

But There is Hope...

From Greats to Plates--The Road to the Slaughter House

I have to be completely honest. The larger part of me wanted to leave this section out and make this a nice happy read about how all race horses are recycled and rehabilitated into happy, normal horsey lives. What you're about to read, however, is not pleasant, and it's the side the racing industry talks about as little about as possible. Unfortunately it's part of this story, and a fairly large part at that. As John Steinbeck once quoted, and as a producer aptly repeated when commenting on this issue for PBS in Seattle, "It is in the things not mentioned that the untruth lies." I'm not writing this piece to lie to anyone.

It is an unfortunate part of the horse racing industry many would like swept under the rug regarding how many race horses are successfully recycled when their racing career is over. It begins to raise questions of accountability on a slippery slope of ambiguous perspectives. I will explain this further in a moment, however. The ugly truth is horses who do not perform to the standards necessary for the industry are sold to the highest bidder, no questions asked.

It doesn't sound so bad until you realize a lot of those highest bidders are slaughter houses who purchase and slaughter horses for human consumption. The American Humane Society reports that approximately 100,000 horses are sold for slaughter every year to slaughter houses in Canada and Mexico and the meat exported for consumption to Japan, Canada and Europe. . About 10% of those are racing thoroughbreds who haven't even reached their 5th year of age. Considering horses live into their 20s, those are lives cut very short.

Also take into consideration that President Obama recently signed a bill (H.R. 2112) on November 18, 2011 that made commercial slaughter of horses once again legal in the United States for the first time since 2006 regardless of this 2008 campaign promises not to do so. There are some taxation twists behind this bill as well. The fact that in a flagging economy this will turn even more horses into the kill pens, people should know their taxes will be subsidizing the foreign meat industry. Horses are not consumed as food in the United States, and 70% of Americans polled stated they are against the practice that they will now be monetarily supporting, most likely without their knowledge. This will not create a large increase in job opportunities. It would only mean a few extra workers hired here and there for relatively low pay. What it will do is increase horse theft and encourage people to throw in the towel and sell their horses off instead of re-homing them.

This is where we come back to the ambiguity issue. In many parts of the world, people would never imagine eating the family cat or dog, yet in other places it's viewed no differently than any other type of meat on the dinner table. Unfortunately for these thoroughbreds, even though they are held in a tentative position of esteem by many people in the western world, they are also viewed more closely as cattle or even deer when it comes to consumption of their flesh. As I said before, thoroughbreds are considered an agricultural commodity in the industry, but to someone, like me, who views them as something completely different, I couldn't take a mouthful of horseflesh if I was starving.

Before reading this article, were you aware so many are slaughtered?

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Two Greats, Two Unfortunate Ends

Do you remember Ferdinand? He was the striking, well-bred son of Nijinsky II who won the 1986 Kentucky Derby. He died in a slaughterhouse in Japan 16 years later, no longer attractive to breeders as a stallion.

What about Exceller? He was the only horse ever to beat two Triple Crown winners – Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. He died in a Swedish slaughterhouse in 1997.

So fame is a short measuring stick in the racing industry.

The Road to the Slaughter House is Paved with Good Intensions

This being said, there are breeders and trainers who are committed to seeing their animals are rehabilitated and recycled into different career paths. They recognize their responsibility and do their best. However, sadly, this is no insurance these horses still don't end up in kill pens. There are many stories of agreements ignored for the turn of a few dollars. Once a horse changes hands a few times, promises go forgotten.

Fortunately, there are many individuals and organizations committed to saving as many of these unfortunate animals as they are able. They are committed to monitoring the auction houses and cattle yards for those being sent to the kill pens. Most horses's second chances can be purchased for $200 plus fees. There are stories, unfortunately, of some yards raising that price simply to take advantage of the situation.

The Successful Stories of Recycled Race Horses

If you're still reading these words, and I hope you are, you've made it through the worst. There are many, many heartening and hopeful stories out there of race horses who have been and are being recycled into happy, useful and loving lives thanks to people who care.

Here are few stories about descendants of those glorified triple crown winners we cheered on to that final finish line to be showered in flowers, flashes, trophies and money. The only circle the horses in these stories were destined for was a dinner plate. And these are only a noteworthy few due to pedigree.

Bucky B Lucky
Bucky B Lucky

Bucky B Lucky Got Lucky

Bucky B Lucky, grandson of triple crown winner Seattle Slew was a winning thoroughbred at Auburn, WA's Emerald Downs. At the age of 4 he was discovered in the kill pen at an auction yard waiting to be shipped off to slaughter, until someone recognized he was well groomed, and wearing a brand new pair of racing shoes and checked his inner lip for the telltale tattoo. He's now at a horse rescue facility in Monroe, WA where he is being rehabilitated and learning how to be a horse for the first time. When he was initially let out with the other horses, he cowered by the gate too afraid to socialize.

Through care and patience, according to those rehabilitating Bucky, he has turned out to be a very calm and brave horse. He has a promising future now and will make someone an excellent riding horse.

You can watch more on Bucky's story here.


Straight Flush
Straight Flush

Straight Flush Wins By a Nose

Straight Flush's greatest claim to fame is being the brother of one of the most famous and revered horses in the world, Secretariat. Born in the heyday of Penny Chenery's Meadow Stables, he was also born into a tall shadow, Straight Flush didn't have much of a winning career as a racer. As a stud he was even less impressive and as time marched on his value declined steadily until he was considered worthless, just skin and bones, standing in a Texas cattle yard waiting to be trucked off for slaughter. Due to his relationship to Secretariat, someone decided to make one last effort to save him and offer him at auction one more time. Stephanie Diaz, horse enthusiast and racing writer, received an email explaining he was for sale. She ponied up $200 and placed a bid not really expecting to ever hear another thing about it. History took a different turn and Stephanie won the auction. Straight Flush was saved and shipped to a California ranch to live out his days. He is now 32 years old, which is beyond elderly for a horse, and still healthy and hearty. He still cavorts and plays.

Stardust Dancer: Lost 1 But then Won His Life Back

Recycle a Race Horse Into a Second Chance at Life

Thankfully, through the commitment and diligence of breeders, owners and trainers, responsibility is being taken by some in the thoroughbred racing industry to ensure these magnificent animals have a quality life regardless of their performance. Some tracks now donate to support rehabilitation and placement of horses no longer suitable for racing. Unfortunately, as you can see, even these intentions don't always pan out so well for the animals.

Hats off to those folks out there who selflessly and diligently look out for these animals and give them a second chance. This wasn't an easy article to write. I know it's not an easy one to read. It's my hope, however, that you will help spread the word that good horses out there are needing a second chance at life. There are organizations in every state who rescue and rehabilitate thoroughbreds. If you are wanting a horse, or if you are able to donate time, goods or funds to help them, I encourage you to contact them. At the very least, please pass this article to anyone you know who loves animals, loves horses, or who is a fan of thoroughbred racing. Save a life.

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Comments 8 comments

DonnaCosmato profile image

DonnaCosmato 4 years ago from USA

Excellent hub and spot-on way to not only highlight a troubling piece of legislature but show the positive side as well. Voted up and shared.


Moon Lightened profile image

Moon Lightened 4 years ago from Delhi, India Author

Thank you, Donna. This was hard to write. Having lived in Louisville, KY for several years I was in the thick of horse country and horse racing enthusiasts. I grew up loving the Derby. But this side is troubling and this doesn't happen only to thoroughbreds. I'm so happy you shared this article. I hope more readers will do the same. A little education, even if unpleasant, goes a long way.


zelica profile image

zelica 4 years ago

Thank-you for writing such a great article! Racehorses are mainly just a commodity to many who breed them. What happens to them after they race or if they never race is often not a concern. Their lives are often not pleasant. I like to remind people not to forget the Standardbred, although they are used for harness racing they make great riding horses too!


Moon Lightened profile image

Moon Lightened 4 years ago from Delhi, India Author

Thanks for reading, zelica. I agree with you! No breed is exempt from this type of end, unfortunately. Standard Breds are beautiful animals too. I'm not as familiar with the breed. If you are, maybe there's a hub in there? Many years ago, I groomed a 3-day-eventer who was a retired racing horse for a stable owner. He was a magnificent animal and probably one of the most affectionate animals I've ever been around.


nagrodsky profile image

nagrodsky 4 years ago from New Mexico, USA

Thank you for writing such a timely article. I was unaware of President Obama's signing a bill to legalize horse slaughter in the USA. I have a "re-tread" former thoroughbred race horse that I am currently training in Dressage and trail ride often with him. He is such a sweetheart and is aptly named "Dreamer". It is really sad that these magnificent participants in the "Sport of Kings" are treated as refuse once their racing careers end. I consider myself fortunate to have had several thoroughbreds that I have given a new home to or re-homed to a forever home that provided the love and attention they deserve. Thanks again for this informative article.


Moon Lightened profile image

Moon Lightened 4 years ago from Delhi, India Author

This is just another product of living in a throw-away world. This country, the USA, was founded on the back of a horse... now we turn it. It's a sad thing. I hope it can be stopped. Thank you for reading.


Derby Deals profile image

Derby Deals 3 years ago from Jeffersonville, Indiana

An insightful article. Going to link this up to my Facebook. Anyone interested in the welfare of animals or that is a fan of racing should give it a look.


Moon Lightened profile image

Moon Lightened 3 years ago from Delhi, India Author

Thank you, Derby Deals. The industry makes being a racing fan and someone who loves animals and cares for their well-being difficult, but I think the more people who become aware of the needs of ex-racers, maybe all the more will get a second chance at a quality life. Years ago, my riding instructor owned a thoroughbred retired racer that she used for 3-day eventing. He was the most amazing creature I've ever met and I'm glad he had a full life (lots of carrots and LOTS of love).

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