On Wednesday, 12 April 2017, two Thoroughbreds, Maximum Flo and 2014 Gold Cup winner Wavin’ Flag were taken from Jenny Millington’s THRC rehoming centre in Philippi. A desperate search ensued and the horses were recovered on Friday, 16 April. Although Wavin’ Flag was tired and a bit footsore, Maximum Flo had been badly injured and was euthanased on humane grounds.
Perhaps the most import part of a racehorse’s life is its transition from racing into the outside world. Finding that very first ‘outside’ owner and making sure it is a good one might be the most important thing we ever do for our horses. Wavin’ Flag had been at THRC since around October last year, while Max arrived just a few months ago. Max even had a prospective new home lined up and it is perhaps that near miss that hurts the most. They were so close.
Situations like this make me want to say a lot of very bad words and hurl sharp objects at people. Racehorse retirement, or rather RESPONSIBLE racehorse retirement is something of a hobbyhorse of mine. I believe one of my first columns was on this very subject and while I try and cover it as often as I think my lovely readers can stand, the fact that we are sitting here discussing yet another incident means I have failed.
That is a tough pill to swallow. Although the helplessness and disappointment translates all too easily into anger, it’s seldom a useful emotion. So having taken several deep breaths (and possibly done a bit of shouting with some bad language included), I tried to find some perspective and see whether there was something that could be learned from the situation to avoid repeating it.
Let’s break it down
One of the first requirements of doing just about anything is agreeing to the rules and regulations. The fine print. The rules of engagement. In our terms, that means the NHA Constitution and our Rules. It’s fairly time consuming and onerous keeping on top of exactly what the current rules are as they change week to week and without any apparent notice or consultation, but as a small consolation, it a) keeps you legal and b) occasionally makes for entertaining reading (see last week’s Changes and Registrations in particular).
Much like death and taxes, if you own a horse, at some point you will either need to bury it, or move it along to a new home. That is a fact, so we may as well deal with it.
As the divide between the racing and leisure communities grows, it becomes harder to find a good home after racing. I am not always the NHA’s biggest fan, but I was thrilled when they finally implemented some rehoming rules in March last year.
The Rehoming Rules
I’m setting the rule out in full and I’m doing it for a reason. Read it !
41.10 The OWNER of a HORSE shall remain responsible for the care and welfare of a HORSE registered in his name with the NHA, once it retires from racing and for the rest of its natural life, unless he:
41.10.1 transfers ownership of the HORSE to another OWNER or an owner in another racing jurisdiction; or
41.10.2 transfers ownership of the HORSE to a BREEDER; or
41.10.3 transfers ownership of the HORSE to a Horsecare Unit run under the auspices of the National Horse Trust, together with the required fee; or
41.10.4 has the HORSE humanely euthanased and reports such euthanasia to the NHA; or
41.10.5 disposes, whether by an auction approved by the CHIEF EXECUTIVE or otherwise, the HORSE out of racing, on condition that a “second career assessment form” as prescribed from time to time, has been completed by a veterinary surgeon, the OWNER and the TRAINER, enabling the HORSE to pursue an intended second career outside of horseracing. If required, the OWNER agrees to make all relevant veterinary history available to the veterinary surgeon and TRAINER, in order to complete the form accurately. The assessment form shall be submitted to the CHIEF EXECUTIVE within one week of the horse retiring from racing. Should the assessment recommend humane euthanasia and the OWNER elects not to humanely euthanase the HORSE, then the OWNER shall remain responsible for that horse’s welfare for the rest of its natural life.
41.11 An OWNER shall be guilty of an offence if he fails to dispose of a horse in accordance with RULE 41.10
There it is in black and white. The OWNERS’ responsibility. Your name on the purchase slip, your name on the NHA register, your name in the race card and results sheet, YOUR RESPONSIBILITY (anyone cheerfully planning a trip to the sales this week, please bear that in mind).
I was even more delighted when Mr Lyndon Barends stated at the recent press briefing that the NHA is responsible for the welfare of the Thoroughbred. I asked when that responsibility starts and ends, and he confirmed that it is from cradle to grave. This pleased me no end. So we finally have rules regarding retirement as well as a failsafe for if / when things go wrong.
Then last week happened.
Anyone who has had the misfortune of being a safety officer knows that in a crisis you stay calm and do things in an orderly fashion. So my first port of call on Thursday morning was to ring the NHA to establish ownership and there things fell at the first hurdle as it seemed the paperwork was not in order. However, a challenge can be a blessing in disguise and with at least one horse still seemingly under the auspices of racing, I alerted Lyndon Barends who assured me Arnold Hyde would get a handle on things to see how they could play a role.
When I hadn’t heard from them by Saturday afternoon, I confirmed to them that the horses had been found and that Maximum Flo had been put to sleep due to the severity of his injuries. Mr Barends responded that an enquiry would be launched.
Where to from here?
While it is thankfully rare that horses are stolen, it has happened before and we would be kidding ourselves to pretend it couldn’t happen again.
Racing – like most other sectors – is under pressure. Resources and manpower are scarce. But so, seemingly, is foresight which means we constantly shoot ourselves in the foot in a variety of interesting, entertaining and ultimately costly ways. Instead of putting safeguards into place BEFORE tragedies like this happen, we operate on some kind of wing and a prayer hoping it won’t and when it then does, the damage is nuclear and the repair bill is higher than adequate safety precautions would ever have been.
If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning
Sometimes, even when events clearly show serious flaws in the system, either the parties involved are not deemed important enough and it gets shrugged off as not all that serious, or otherwise they are TOO important and then we’re not supposed to talk about it at all.
Well, it has happened and this is an important story because it proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that the system IS flawed and has left the associated parties with their backsides in the wind. While that may give some of their detractors some personal satisfaction, it would be a serious mistake to sit back and feel smug – there but for the grace of God go I. So (with apologies to those involved) it’s something I am extremely grateful for and I think we all should be. Without these names and without these people, the incident might be swept aside as unimportant, but circumstances mean it is less likely in this case. That is a small, if somewhat unlikely, silver lining and if we can use this opportunity intelligently, hopefully we save another horse – or owner – similar heartache.
My interest in this incident has generated some interesting feedback. While reaction is always welcome, interestingly it seems to be annoyance that I dared to call people on this, rather than joint dismay at the holes in the system and looking how we can improve, which I think is rather disappointing.
It’s a tough thing to say, but I sincerely hope the NHA will come down hard on those who let the system – and the horses – down (and frankly, I feel that includes the NHA). This is not because I am mean spirited, but because when one person doesn’t do their bit, someone else has to pick up the slack. And when gaps are left because of people being selfish and lazy, someone else has to give up their evenings, weekends and public holidays and have their emotions and nerves trampled on to clean up the mess. And that isn’t very fair.
Also, while the horses are my prime concern, consider for a moment the fact that those rules are all that stand between owners and an embarrassing welfare issue. Why wouldn’t we want to protect ourselves better?
The wheres, whys, whos and hows need to be looked at and where necessary those that failed their duties should be taken to task, but dealing with those responsible is the easy bit. Preventing it from happening again is where the challenge lies.
The NHA might be taking responsibility for the welfare of the Thoroughbred, but they cannot carry it alone. We let these horses down. This is on all of us. We are all part of the community and unfortunately like all communities, we are only as strong as our weakest link. We need to take an objective look at how this happened, identify the flaws in the system and make the system more robust going forward (suggestions welcome!).
Life is busy and memories are short – but I hope everyone who has read this will take up the cause and petition the powers that be to make sure we don’t lose this valuable lesson. We need better administration of our horses retiring out of racing and we need a better system for finding second careers for them. But it’s not going to happen on its own. We need to ask for it. Demand it, even. So let’s do it. Our new MD / CEO / whatever his job title is this week, Lyndon Barends can by reached by email via his secretary – firstname.lastname@example.org. Racing Executive Arnold Hyde is also our Welfare Officer and his email address is email@example.com.
Drop them a line and state your views. Share this story, make suggestions, post on ABC, Sporting Post, social media, mainstream media – make some noise and don’t stop until we see some change.
If we build a better system (and stick to it), that means a better system for you and for me, for our horses and for our sport (and I finally get to change the subject). That’s good sense. And to me, THAT’s good for racing.