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Retiring The Racehorse

Time For Change?

Why no contracts?

Ownership dispute

Last week saw an ugly incident raise its head in a very public manner regarding the ownership of a horse. It was an extremely unfortunate incident, which not only left a bitter taste in the mouth of a long-standing owner, but served to add another blot to the already untidy reputation of the racing industry. There are a number of high profile individuals involved and I don’t wish to go into the specifics – those are already in the hands of the relevant authorities – but the incident served to highlight – yet again – the need for a formal racehorse retirement policy.

They say wisdom comes from experience. The problem with experience is that it generally turns up just after you need it. Unfortunately in this case, experience came a little too late, but with a bit of luck, it may not have been for nothing if the lessons learnt can help someone else along the line. I think it was Maya Angelou who said that one does the best you can until you know better. Once you know better, you do better. So here goes.

First principles

Horse in a stable

Horses are totally dependent on us

To unravel the whole process we have to remember one fundamental thing. Incredible as it sounds when it comes to a half ton speed machine, humans have reduced the horse – and the Thoroughbred in particular – to a helpless creature. If you think that’s excessively dramatic, consider this: a horse is a creature of movement. It is designed to live in a group, cover distances of around 30km per day and eat more or less constant small amounts of low quality roughage. Of course, humans cannot help meddling with things. Having chosen to use horses for our industry, we want them to conform to suit our needs. In order to manage them more easily, we fence them in, compromise their social structure and change their diet. Heck, we even mess with their reproductive cycles. To compensate for all that, we need farriers to manage their feet, dentists to manage their teeth and vets to stitch and patch and unblock colics from situations and feedstuffs nature didn’t design them for.

In short, we have made the horse wholly dependent on us. So when we sign a sales slip, that is an entire, complicated life we are signing responsibility for. I sometimes wonder whether folks fully realise what that entails. Like a marriage, your responsibilities don’t end after saying ‘I do’. It’s a journey and it is a process and signing that purchase slip means you’re in for the duration. Some of the responsibility is financial and like most problems, throwing money at it will make a lot of it go away. However, there are aspects that money cannot solve. These generally involve the difficult decisions – ending a life, or possibly more importantly, passing along the responsibility for that life to someone else. Again, I’m not sure people always appreciate the gravity and long term repercussions of these decisions.

The racing industry currently has no formal system of tracking horses after racing and the bottom line is once you’ve signed your horse away, you are literally putting that horse’s life and that entire collection of special needs in someone else’s hands. Unless you have a clever lawyer and a long and complicated contract with the buyer, that horse is no longer yours and you have no say over what happens next. There are a wide number of available options, but it is a big, bad, unpredictable world out there and its fate lies in the lap of the gods. So if you have even a half-functioning conscience, retiring a racehorse should be done thoughtfully and carefully.

Do The Paperwork

Being one of those crazy horse ladies, I cannot imagine that anyone would ever want to get rid of a horse (as my husband’s grey hair will attest!). I’m a bit like a Jewish mother in my conviction that no-one could ever be good enough for my ‘kids’ and so mine are all home with me. However, I appreciate that some people are only interested in horses for the duration of their racing careers and therefore need to swap the old ones out for new ones every so often. This presents a problem as the old ones need to go somewhere. Horses can live for a good long time – many make it into their mid-20s’ – so even if you are not the wither-scratching, carrot-feeding type and only have horses as commodities, it is worth ensuring things are properly taken care of as they can come back and give you a nasty bite in the bum. No-one wants to be implicated in unpleasant headlines, so if the authorities (or tabloids) ever come knocking, it’s a good policy to have the paperwork in order. My husband calls it CYA (covering your a$$). So let’s look at how to manage the process so that you minimise the chances of an unpleasant surprise further down the line.

Whose job is it?

Your country needs you

Whose job is it?

There are a number of different challenges when it comes to deciding what to do with horses retiring from the track. Probably the first is deciding who is responsible for the horse. I’m a bit of a black and white thinker, so in my opinion (and it is only an opinion, albeit a strong one) this duty falls to the owner (singular or syndicate). It is your name on the registration papers and the hard truth is that it’s not only good in the winner’s enclosure. Ownership means exactly that – you own and are responsible for that animal up to the point where you hand that responsibility over to the next person. Preferably with a legally binding document.

To home, or not to home

Some horses find their way into the breeding barns. The rest need to make another plan. The short cut, easy solution would be to euthanise unwanted horses when they leave racing. In many ways it is a sensible and responsible option, but it is also a very final one. While it absolves you of absolutely any chance of being dragged into unpleasantries or legal wrangles if your horse ever ends up somewhere it shouldn’t, a lot of people find it unpalatable and that is fair enough.

Despite a lot of tabloid horror stories, there are people out there who are wonderful, knowledgeable and devoted owners, so if you do opt to find your horse a home beyond racing, then read on.

Trainers

It seems to have become common practice to expect trainers to deal with unwanted horses. I happen to consider it a little unreasonable to expect someone to carry the care and cost of your animal as well as bearing the responsibility of finding it a home simply because you’ve decided you don’t want it anymore. Unless the trainer specifically wants a horse, don’t do it.

Options

Right, now that we’ve decided who’s carrying the can, the next decision is determining what your, or more specifically your horse’s, options are. Almost everything to do with horses costs money and retiring them is no different, so don’t think you are off the hook! As always, knowledge is power so start by getting an opinion from your vet as to the horse’s soundness and its realistic prospects of a life beyond racing. If there are serious problems, either physical or temperamental, it is worth weighing your options – and those of your horse – carefully.

Not all homes are equal

In our politically correct world it’s not acceptable to judge some people as better than others, but I can tell you with confidence that as with everything in life, there is a vast spectrum out there and like champion horses, champion homes are in short supply. With the advent of purpose bred competition and riding horses, Thoroughbreds face stiff competition for homes, because no matter how much your horse cost as a yearling, how beautifully it is bred or what it did on the track, when it comes to starting its next life, none of that matters. The slate is wiped clean and your horse faces life not only as a complete novice, but one with a whole lot of mileage, baggage and acquired habits, most of which are downright undesirable to a prospective new owner. In short, its value is recalculated on a completely different system and it will need good looks, good movement, a good temperament and really good networking (if not all the above) for it to even stand a chance. And because your horse is entirely vulnerable and dependent on you to help it along and find it the right home, this is possibly the most important thing you will ever be required to do for your horse. Make it count.

Injuries / physical problems

Equine fluAs most of us have experienced in racing, horses get hurt. Most of the time, injuries can be remedied with the correct treatment and rest. There are people who are prepared to take on a horse with an injury, but it is important to know exactly what the injury is and what the long-term implications are as you will need to ensure that any prospective home understands what they are getting into.

Temperament problems

There is a creature that the competitive world calls ‘a professional ride’. This is the brilliant, but flawed character that needs careful and skilful management to bring out its best. While it is understandable that professional equine athletes, like their human counterparts, are not always easy characters, the majority of the world outside racing is not professional. Bear that in mind.

Moving on

OK, assuming we have a sound horse that seems relatively sane, what’s the next step? The NHA has a number of forms available for download on its website. There is a Notification of Retirement form, which notes the horse, the date of retirement and details of the person the horse is sent to next. It is a compulsory document and must be filled out and submitted to the NHA when a horse leaves racing. The good news is that the process is free of charge. Next, there’s the Condition of Sale document. It is fairly similar to the Retirement Form, but includes the express condition that the horse is not to be used for racing again. Again, it is free to lodge this document. Lastly, there’s the Change of Ownership form. This costs R745 to lodge, so most people do not bother if the horse is retired out of racing.

There is currently no imperative to track horses outside racing, but in the event of an ownership dispute, Rule 34.6 states that the Chief Executive is entitled to intervene and register the horse in the name of the person who is able to establish lawful ownership. The law of the country trumps the rules of the NHA and therefore they have to act accordingly.

Which brings us to the next bit. There is no such thing as a perfect system. Effective systems are organic and evolve over time. Or at least, they do when they are allowed to. The key to getting any system to work is for it to be tested, and for users to give feedback so that it can be tweaked where necessary. There is plenty of criticism for the NHA’s procedures, but the fact of the matter is, if we want a workable system, we have to help build it.

Of course, this wisdom only comes with experience and last week’s incident is a textbook example of what happens when the system gets tested. While the school of hard knocks is bitter and painful, hopefully the lessons won’t be lost. If this creates an incentive to re-examine our retirement and rehoming policies, perhaps we will all be better off.

Have Your Say

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15 comments on “Retiring The Racehorse

  1. Joao says:

    Robyn, retirement forms mean NOTHING. Retiring an athlete human or equine does / should not enforce its retirement for ever.

    I mean, it is a bit subjective anyways….one mans useless could be another mans champion.

    The bullet although final is the ONLY option because i promise you that if a Frankel 2 year old is retired with a tendon and 4 year later i spot it in the field and it moves like daddy then WHY can i not run it?

    The real “culprits” in last weeks story are the clevers that chose to “retire” a horse that can clearly still run…..

    1. In the American Jockey Club, the “Retired from Racing” form submitted to the JC following a sale (document is signed & notarized by both buyer and seller) prevents the horse from being entered at any track. If you are buying a horse with a tendon injury both the veterinarians of the buyer and seller have determined is too severe, even when healed, to be sound running at pace while carrying a rider in race conditions, then you accept it or don’t buy the horse. You are getting a discounted price anyway.

      Horses which are not sound for competition often “move like Frankel” in a pasture, but that does not mean they are sound to race.

      American JC also inspects and certifies after-care/adoption organizations and facilities for certification. I work with one of these, and it is extremely rewarding helping to find the best home for former runners.

  2. Ian Jayes says:

    Any horse leaving the ambit of racing that does not go to stud should be checked by a NHA Veterinarian and if not sound, it should be sent to the trust and euthanased.

    1. Seriously? Most retirees are sound to have second careers in other equestrian sports, pleasure riding, and producing sport/working horses. Putting down horses just because the cannot race or produce racers is downright cruel, and reduces these noble animals to machine status.

  3. Anonymous says:

    My 2cents worth! With reference to your article, …..spot on! Having experienced both sides of the coin as it were, you have the insight that many readers/punters do not!

    “It seems to have become common practice to expect trainers to deal with unwanted horses. I happen to consider it a little unreasonable to expect someone to carry the care and cost of your animal as well as bearing the responsibility of finding it a home simply because you’ve decided you don’t want it anymore. Unless the trainer specifically wants a horse, don’t do it.”

    This is fact! The current trend amongst unscrupulous owners is to stop paying for their horse the very day they decide to “retire” a horse, ….not the end of the month, ……not the day the horse is rehomed, …the day they make their decision. The trainer then has to feed this horse until such time it leaves his/her yard. It is also a trend that when owners ask assistant trainers, or trainers assistants, to rehome horses, they too are expected to feed/care for that horse until such time that it is rehomed (which begs the question, why is it wrong for them to take a commission for the sale?). That is not acceptable!

    On the subject of assistants making money out of selling horses for owners, ….do the public have any idea of the amount of time, energy, and patience this takes? They deserve every penny they can make for the abuse, time wasting, home checks, person checks, etc., that they have to go through before they rehome some uncaring owners horse!

    Owners are too quick to cry foul, but owners are responsible for their horse(s) until rehomed, full stop! I do, however, believe that responsibility then shifts to the horse’s new owner. Otherwise, Stud farms should be responsible for all horses from birth till death (and not just the person who races them)!

    A comment to your article, ….Joao says: “The real “culprits” in last weeks story are the clevers that chose to “retire” a horse that can clearly still run…..”

    There is truth to that statement also. These days owners would rather retire a horse that has an injury/bleeder/needs time etc., than pay for it to stand for a prolonged period.

    Robert Brogan (African Betting Clan) states: “So wrong to race a horse with so many problems,just wrong ,very surprised at the De Kock yard”.

    But, if de Kock did not take on this horse, the owner would simply have approached another trainer who would train this horse. So, why not Mike de Kock? Not all owners are honorable humans!

    I am not in favour of “bush racing”, or “amateur racing”, and certainly do not condone what happened with John Finlayson’s filly. When a thoroughbred’s passport has “NOT FOR RACING” or “RETIRED FROM RACING” written all over it, it should mean exactly that! The NHRA are not doing their part to protect the rights of the racehorse!

    The issue of retired race horses is a particularly gut-wrenching one for me, a battle between the head and the heart. I want even the injured, useful as a companion-horse-only horses, to also get loving homes. All racehorses deserve to live, but they also deserve to live a good life. So, where does one, on a personal level, draw the line? Not only horses though, …the thousands of dogs, cats, and donkeys sitting in cages and horse care units. I don’t think there is an easy, correct, or ethical solution!

    On a different note, ….what of the trainers who when instructed by an owner to give their horse away, sell them (and not cheaply either, ….+-10k), and then pocket the money without the said owners knowledge?!

    1. avanza says:

      All sounds good to me..

  4. Brett Maselle says:

    It is easy to point fingers and to play the blame game in horseracing. We all do it in some form or another.
    In my opinion if a horse is retired by an owner, that she be the end of its racing career. “Bush Racing” or ” Amateur Racing” is outlawed in several Provinces.
    Unfortunately, retiring a racehorse means nothing to the NHA and Phumelela. The latter held three amateur races, this year, at Fairview in Port Elizabeth with retired horses running in each of the races.
    Worse, is the fact that the NHA informed me, in writing, that it had no jurisdiction over these races.
    Even worse is that SAFTOTE allowed betting on these races when its rules state “Horseracing is conducted subject to the rules of the National Horseracing Authority and any other condition(s) imposed by the PLA.”
    It is not only horses that are taken for a ride!!

  5. Walter Pike says:

    Robyn you make a number of good points. I’ll comment on one.

    There are indeed many people who are extremely competent and knowledgeable about off the track thoroughbreds. I run a FB group called “a thoroughbred second life” dedicated to these people with nearly 3000 members it’s represents many more OTTBs probably as many as 10000 which would account for about 4 or 5 years of retired racehorses of those in the recreation or sports horse sector. I currently own 6 myself.

    I believe a mindset shift is required. The industry does have a responsibility to pass these horses to their second life and owners who are responsible do need to have a level of confidence that they will have a better than even chance of a decent second life.

    It’s not that hard either it requires some admin, some attention and a will to take responsibility for these horses.

    1. Robyn Louw says:

      Hi Walter, I’m a big fan of your page and gave it a plug in an article I wrote last year – http://www.sportingpost.co.za/2014/10/promoting-racing-charity-starts-at-home/

      While I like the idea that “the industry has a responsibility to pass these horses to their second life”, “the industry” does not own horses, people do. And because the laws governing animal welfare are what they are, it’s hard enough to impose rules on how people look after their cats and dogs, nevermind horses.

      We live in a capitalist society, so it’s difficult to dictate what people can and can’t do with their property (and unfortunately horses can be considered commercial property or commodities). Until laws (or the NHA rules) change, the best we can currently do is create a moral imperative for people to do the right thing (a very subjective term!), educate owners, promote the breed and keep our fingers crossed.

      I, for one, would like a few more options.

    2. Tarryn Griebenow says:

      Well said Walter, these horses deserve a chance at a wonderful second and forever home. All 3 of my TB’s are off the track and the oldest is 27 and blissfully happy! 🙂

  6. avanza says:

    Brilliant article as usual..
    2 things
    1. Somewhere along the line e.g. each run, each month of keep …. there should be retirement monies charged for owning a horse. That is put in a trust for the horse. Somewhere the horse must have assurance as the owners sure as hell are only interested in the dollar.
    2. Make a ‘senior circuit’ for horses… let them run and compete till 15. A race is a race. Coupled with 1. they would then be able to retire on their own money in peace.

    Your first point is so true… we have a strictly unethical sport… that squeezes the juice and then discards … so the horse needs to be more expensive to own(see point 1.). Thereby there will be less purchases, less homeless horses and the same amount of racing.

    After all the damn horse did not ask for the life in racing …

    1. mabaker says:

      You mirror exactly how I feel, thanks

  7. Charlie says:

    Breeders need to take more responsibility for flooding the market with horses. Part of their breeding license fees or taxes should go towards the retirement/rehoming of unwanted TB’s.

    Or maybe race horses should just be shot in front of their owners once they don’t want them anymore. This might make greedy owners think twice about the responsibilities of owning a horse that can live up until 30 years old.

    1. Steve Reid says:

      Charlie you really are clueless. 95% of horses do not return a profit to owners. You clearly have no idea what you are talking about. Rather keep your mouth shut when you have no idea what you are talking about. The majority of owners are not in this game for anything but enjoyment of owning a thoroughbred. I note many disparaging remarks against owners and wonder if the bottom feeders have any idea what the costs are in getting a horse to the track.

      1. It also cost almost the same amount to keep that retired racehorse in good nick for the next person who takes over the responsibility for your retired racehorse. However they might not gain any financial profit other than the welfare of the horse. Breeding and racing is an industry and should take care of their own.

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