Do Racehorses Have A Retirement Crisis, Too?


This weekend witnessed the last race and retirement of one of the great racehorses of all time – Triple-Crown-winning American Pharoah, who capped off a brilliant career on Saturday winning the prestigious Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The Breeders’ Cup Classic reminded us why – the advent of Simulcasts and on-line video notwithstanding – horse racing remains one of America’s most popular spectator sports, with millions of us flocking each year to racetracks like Churchill Downs, Belmont, Saratoga, and Pimlico to participate in this rich tradition. But for the overwhelming majority of us, our love for racehorses begins and ends when we enter and depart from the track. The life of a racehorse is not something that often crosses our minds.

If American workers have a lot to worry about as they head into retirement, think about being a racehorse. They have short careers, many times lasting only two years, and often find themselves discarded by the industry without the proper infrastructure to support the rest of their lives.  Tragically – despite the fact that the United States has made horse slaughter illegal – every year, tens of thousands of horses find themselves in kill pens in Canada or Mexico.

In 2012, an estimated 176,223 horses from the United States were slaughtered. Thirteen per cent, or 23,000 of those slaughtered, were thoroughbreds who were bred to race. Now consider this, in that same year, the registered foal crop was 21,720. Yes, you read that right: more horses were slaughtered than foaled in 2012. While the number of horses slaughtered annually usually does not exceed the number foaled, these numbers are not an anomaly. The thoroughbred industry has a “retirement crisis” it needs to address.

Many will assume that it’s just the plodders, the lowest level runners, who meet this grisly fate, but that is not always the case.  In 2002, Ferdinand, a winner of the Kentucky Derby, was slaughtered in Japan. Many in the community mourned his loss, but only a few took action.

And for the horses who are not sent to Canada or Mexico, there are others who are simply neglected. Look at this case of abuse and neglect, where one farmer in Kentucky was found to have 49 dead horses and 15 emaciated horses on his farm. Other cases have been reported where horses are up to 300 pounds underweight. Sadly, these instances are hardly exceptional.

As a nineteen year old who has spent his life around horses, it is beyond disappointing to get this bitter dose of reality. How is it that the industry and individual horse owners alike have not taken greater responsibility for the horses they breed, race and enjoy? Thoroughbred racing celebrates a truly beautiful, breathtaking animal.  These majestic horses are bred to compete, they are a celebrated icon, and they are the foundation of the multi-billion dollar industry we call the Sport of Kings. How can we not have the proper programs in place to save them from slaughter?

It is time to act.  Perhaps I am a bit idealistic, but the problem seems to have a simple solution.  American workers have a 401K which enables them to save with tax advantages for retirement.  Horses need the equivalent – a “401Neigh.”  The concept is the same – a vehicle for systematic savings to better prepare a horse for its retirement. When purchasing a horse, owners should understand – and help provide for – the cost to support a horse throughout its life.  They should also understand the options available for their horse after their racing days are done – from farm pets to jumpers and hunters, to show horses, to participation in emotional and physical therapy programs for returning veterans.

Some incredibly generous and thoughtful members of the horseracing community have started retirement programs for racehorses, but each of these programs face public awareness and funding challenges. The 401Neigh can help address these things.  Here are its elements:

  1. A simple app that we have built that should be supported by all thoroughbred sales companies that help owners understand the cost of a horse’s retirement.
  2. A savings strategy that puts away funds so that a horse doesn’t come off the track and into the queue at a slaughter house.
  3. Mandated fees that become part of the purchasing of racehorses at public auction that will go to Thoroughbred Charities of America (TCA) to be used for programs that support race horse retirement.
  4. Within the app, a directory of all the programs that support race horse retirement.

That’s it.  That’s the 401Neigh.  Will it stop all the horses headed off to an ugly end to their careers?  No.  But can the effort make a dent? I think it can.

– Will Crager, University of Notre Dame, Intern

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

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