By Jeff Nunn
Most of us work the majority of our lives and dream about the day we can finally retire: a day where we have no responsibilities, answer to no one and can enjoy the fruits of our hard work.
Thoroughbred racehorses are no different.
They work hard and earn plenty of money for their owners, trainers and jockeys. They deserve a very similar retirement just like the rest of us.
However, after their racing careers, most successful horses are sold for breeding. Breeders in Japan seem to be willing to pay top dollar for upper-level horses.
I know you don’t want to hear this but after their breeding days, the much-heralded horses no longer hold any value, so they are often sent to a slaughterhouse where their meat is used for human consumption as well as dog food.
This practice is very common and it’s not just thoroughbreds that are being sent for slaughter.
Since 2007, when the United States banned the slaughter of horses for human consumption, an estimated 150,000 American horses a year are shipped across the border to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico with approximately 10,000 of them being thoroughbreds.
Many of those horses are bought by “kill buyers” at the Shipshewana auction in Indiana’s Amish country. These horses are considered unfit for riding or working, so they are sold in the “loose horse” auction, which takes place behind the barn in the morning before the crowds show up for the main auction of “sound horses,” that are considered fit for riding and working.
The Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act of 2013, which would ban the export of horses for slaughter, while also permanently forbidding the reestablishment of slaughterhouses in the United States, did not pass and was reintroduced in 2015 in the 114th Congress, which met from Jan. 6, 2015 to Jan. 3, 2017.
The bill must be passed by both the House and Senate in identical form and then be signed by the President to become law. The SAFE act was not enacted by the end of a Congress and was cleared from the books.
In 2015, the European Union banned imports of horse meat from Mexico. Since the government isn’t doing anything to help these horses, it’s up to the thoroughbred racing industry to protect their retired horses and to set an example.
Many national racetracks, including Churchill Downs and Keeneland, have enacted stringent anti-slaughter policies that would impose race bans to anyone who is caught selling a horse to a slaughterhouse or to an intermediary auction.
There are also many thoroughbred enthusiasts who have started organizations that adopt unwanted or retired horses so they can have a dignified retirement and protect them from being slaughtered.
In 2003, a former Boston Globe film critic named Michael Blowen founded Old Friend Thoroughbred Retirement Farm. This 501(c)3 nonprofit organization is located in Georgetown, Ky.
According to their website, “The organization has grown from a leased paddock and one horse to a 136-acre farm, a herd of over 175 rescued and retired horses, and two satellite facilities: Old Friends at Cabin Creek in Greenfield Center, Ny., and Old Friends at Kentucky Downs in Franklin, Ky.”
I had the pleasure of visiting Old Friends farm this past fall, and I highly recommend visiting if you are even slightly interested in horses.
If you are not a fan of horses, you will be before you leave the farm.
Their website states, “Our guests come to visit a few ex-racehorses, but they often leave having been touched by the heart of a Thoroughbred hero.”
During my visit, I had the pleasure of talking with Michael Blowen, as he often talks to the tour groups. He introduced us to the only non-thoroughbred on the grounds, a miniature horse named Little Silver Charm, who follows Blowen around like man’s best friend.
Blowen told us stories of how the more than 30-year-old mini-horse walked by his side down the street and went into the local bar with him.
Blowen and I share a love of 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, Silver Charm. Blowen loves him so much that he did everything he could to bring him home to Old Friends Farm from Japan. And when Silver Charm’s breeding days in Japan came to an end, Blowen, along with a lot of help, did exactly that. Silver Charm will spend the rest of his retirement in his Old KY home at Old Friends Farm.
Silver Charm is still a ham in front of the camera and he will gently eat a carrot or peppermint out of your hand. My 5-year-old fed him carrots as I told him stories of Charm’s racing days. Blowen will walk up to the fence and yell: “Who is the greatest horse of all time?!?” and Charm will come galloping toward Blowen.
Ironically, in the paddock next to Silver Charm is the horse that defeated him in the 1997 Belmont Stakes keeping him from becoming a Triple Crown winner. Yes, Touch Gold and Charm are side by side, and Blowen said he would love to hear the nightly conversations of the two great champions.
Also at Old Friends is the 2002 KY Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem. Grazing in the field next to him was the Sarava, who won the 2002 Belmont Stakes costing War Emblem the Triple Crown.
A nearly forgotten horse retired at Old Friends is Tinners Way, who was the final foal of the great Secretariat.
Old Friends Farm has 11 Eclipse-Award champions, 10 Breeders’ Cup winners, two Hall of Fame inductees, one Dubai World Cup winner, and two Horses of the Year. They have more stakes winners than any farm in the Bluegrass. They have also repatriated eight horses from Japan and one horse from Italy. It is also known as a “living-history museum of horse racing.”
At Old Friends, there are famous horses and horses most of us have never heard of. Despite their popularity or lifetime earnings, they are all cared for in the same way – with tender loving care. That’s exactly how retired horses should be treated.