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Where Do All The Horses Go? – Robyn Louw

Many people have sighed for the ‘good old days’ and regretted the ‘passing of the horse,’ but today, when only those who like horses own them, it is a far better time for horses. ~ C.W. Anderson


Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand (Nijinsky II – Banja Luka) ended up as pet food.  Bred by the Howard Keck family, his career boasted 8 wins from 29 starts, including the 1986 Kentucky Derby (under a last ride from Bill Shoemaker), a dramatic victory over Alysheba by a nose in the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Eclipse Horse of the Year title for 1987.  His lifetime earnings of $3,777,978 made him the fifth leading money earner of all time when he retired in 1989.  He enjoyed a brief, but unsuccessful stud career at Claiborne Farm before being sold on to Japan where his lacklustre stud record continued.  He changed hands again sometime in 2001 without notice to either Claiborne or the Keck family.  The Keck’s decided to try and bring the horse back to the US, but the decision unfortunately came too late for Ferdinand.  Although records reflect that he covered mares in both 2001 and 2002, Ferdinand had effectively fallen off the radar and no one seemed to know exactly what had happened to him.  Barbara Beyer of The Blood Horse sadly uncovered that Ferdinand had been ‘disposed of’ sometime in 2002.  According to Barbara “In Japan, the term ‘disposed of’ is used to mean slaughtered.”

Straight Flush

Incredible as it may seem (particularly after the recent film), a half brother to Secretariat once ended up starving and en route to slaughter.  By Derby winner (and Meadow Farm favourite), Riva Ridge out of Secretariat’s dam Somethingroyal, Straight Flush was 24 years old, skin and bone and long past any utilitarian use when he wound up on a feedlot in Texas in 1999.  Fortunately for Straight Flush, horse enthusiast and racing writer Stephanie Diaz somehow heard of his plight and raised the $200 purchase price to save his life.  She moved him to a retirement ranch in California where he was nursed back to health.  He enjoyed a long and carrot filled retirement and died peacefully in his sleep in September 2007.  He was 32 years old.

Fujiyama Crest

For those of you still reading, I do have a cheery story.  Frankie Dettori won a bookmaker breaking full card of wins at Ascot on 28 September 1996.  Fujiyama Crest was the horse who carried him to victory in the final race.  Unfortunately, Fujiyama Crest’s career deteriorated somewhat after that until he was running in the claiming ranks.  When he came up for sale, Frankie decided to adopt him and Fujiyama Crest, now 18, enjoys life as the Dettori family pet.

Let’s Get Real

In an ideal world, all horses would be champions and either retire to stud or graduate onto a well deserved life of leisure in a grassy paddock.  In some cases this does happen.  We have lovely stories like Free My Heart living a life of leisure at Highlands, Kapil retired out at Arc en Ciel and Pocket Power recently going on to a second career with Belinda Haytread.  I am sure there are many more stories like that out there.

But the fact is that racing is an industry driven by overheads and bottom lines.  The horses that do not fit in somewhere between the two are not financially viable and need to make way for candidates that are.  Benevolent trainers, jockeys and owners are in short supply and racing ‘off cuts’ often find their way into the leisure industry.

This is often proves a very successful arrangement.  Thoroughbreds have the looks, athleticism and temperament to make ideal competition prospects and often excel in their second careers.  A good recent example is an American horse called Courageous Comet.  Despite a moderate racing career, he excelled as an event horse and was part of the US team at the recent World Equestrian Games.

Unfortunately seeing THB’s in the line up at top level competition has become the exception rather than the rule.  The reason is that the competitive environment has changed and people are choosing Warmbloods or any one of the increasing number of modern sport horse breeds over THBs.  Faced with the choice between a horse that needs letting down, fixing up and reschooling vs a purpose bred ready-made competition horse, it’s not hard to see why people increasingly opt for the latter.

The average horse may race until it’s about 5 years old.  However, horses can frequently work well into their late teens and early twenties (and often beyond), so a horse’s racing career really only forms a tiny portion of its life.  However, it does take place during those all important formative years when the horse is maturing both physically and mentally and can therefore dictate a huge amount about the horse’s future.

How To Retire A Horse

It is worth mentioning that the priority list when horse hunting is soundness, temperament and looks, in that order.  If your retiring racehorse doesn’t score highly in the first two categories, you may want to re-think your options for them.  After all, if you don’t want an unsound, temperamental horse, it’s hard to imagine that someone else will.

There are lots of very good, knowledgeable homes out there and lots of happy, spoilt horses living the life of Riley.  However, without being a gore merchant, the other side of the coin is all too real and has been illustrated all too clearly in recent tabloid reports.

While the recent case is a tragedy in every sense of the word, every ‘accident’ or SPCA case is not only a tragedy for the animal, but also for the industry as a whole as it touches and tarnishes all of us.  There, but for the grace of God go I.

Ridiculous as it sounds, horses disappear remarkably easily.  I recently came across a lovely old gelding who was adopted by some friends in Paarl.  He’s one of those plain brown horses with no distinguishing features – the sort the riding community calls an LBJ, or Little Brown Job.  An inveterate crib biter, he has no front teeth for the local vets to gauge his age, but is guessed to be somewhere between 20-30.  Sadly no one quite knows where he came from or who he is, although he has that unmistakeable quality and fire that mark him as a THB.  He could be nobody or he could be a Met winner.  These days he’s simply ‘Mike’.


South Africa does not have a culture of Thoroughbred retirement foundations or any formal organisations for producing and rehoming horses coming off the track.  However, one organisation looking to address this is the newly established REHORP (Rehoming of Race Horses Project).  It is run in conjunction with the Cape Horse Care Unit and based at the Grassy Park SPCA.

On a recent visit, I was struck by the number of plaques and signs bearing testimony to the generous support of the racing industry (even though the number of THB residents is thankfully low).  In fact, the Horse Care Unit came about through the hard work of Aubrey Jacobs, who served as a Steward at Newmarket for many years.  Horse welfare has always been a subject close to his heart and Aubrey worked to establish the National Horse Trust.  The NHT became involved with the Highveld Horse Care Unit and together with a generous donation from the Oppenheimer family, enabled them to purchase a property and build a facility for the care and rehabilitation of neglected equines.  The NHT continues their support and remains the main fundraiser for the HHCU and subsequently established EC HCU.

When Aubrey relocated to the Cape in 1993 and realised that there was no equivalent facility available locally, he set about establishing the Western Cape Equine Trust which raised funds to sponsor a Horse Care Unit at the Grassy Park SPCA.  Although Aubrey has recently retired, his sterling work is being continued through the very capable Tom Fowler.

While the Horse Care Unit is largely kept busy with cart horses and township equines, a case involving 2 Thoroughbreds served to highlight the needs of horses coming off the track and this led to the establishment of a specialised unit called REHORP in 2010.

Run in conjunction with the Horse Care Unit at the SPCA, REHORP seeks to address the gap between a horse leaving the track and making the transition into its new life.  All horses that pass through their hands are let down, castrated if necessary and have their inoculations brought up to date.  They are adopted out under the HCU rules whereby potential homes are carefully assessed and each horse is monitored and checked annually to ensure that the placement continues to be successful.

Brand Awareness – Not Always A Good Thing !

Although the SPCA name is fairly self explanatory (Society for the PREVENTION of Cruelty to Animals) it is worth spelling out and stating that it sees its role primarily as one of support and education.  However, by necessity their function also extends to the rescue and removal of animals where necessary and it is unfortunately this aspect of the work that people associate them with most strongly.  It is easy to understand that the presence of an SPCA branded vehicle on someone’s premise could be misconstrued as an indication of cruelty or neglect.   Although it takes a certain amount of courage to invite large and strongly branded SPCA vehicles into a racing yard, the REHORP venture has been embraced by several local trainers and a number of horses have already been successfully rehomed through the programme.  In fact, it has generated so much interest that there is a waiting list of potential homes for some of the horses.

It is a win-win situation as the owner or trainer trying to place the horse receives peace of mind knowing that the animal will be monitored for the rest of its life.  In return, the money raised through the adoption fees is ploughed straight back into the Horse Care Unit and goes directly to improving the lives of less lucky equines.  Perhaps the best spin off is that the interest generated by the Thoroughbreds creates additional foot traffic through the Unit and I am told that prospective adoptees will often take a companion donkey or pony as well.  In fact, it is worth mentioning that the staff are so persuasive that a local trainer ended up adopting two cart horses as lead ponies – how’s that for a commitment to corporate responsibility (as well as pretty impressive sales technique !)

Is REHORP the answer ?  I don’t know, but it is certainly good to add such a valuable asset to our support network.

We cannot save each and every horse out there, but we can start by keeping tabs on the ones that pass through our hands.  Because in the chilling words of Louis Joubert, ‘there is a fate worse than death’.

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