The Realities of Horse Racing, Part One

An introduction to our Off-Track Thoroughbred residents and why we don't support the horse racing industry

Prior to our involvement in horses and equine rescue, we were like many people in that we hadn't given much thought to horse racing or what the life of a racing horse might be like. Although we were certainly aware of major equestrian sporting events such as the Kentucky Derby, people always talk about race horses in terms of their athleticism, majesty and presence - we never heard about the downside of the track. Adopting our first Off-Track Thoroughbred (OTTB) opened our eyes to the realities of racing and made it clear that we needed to be a voice for these animals.

"If you really care about animals, then stop trying to figure out how to exploit them 'compassionately,' just stop exploiting them." -Gary L. Francione

Mario's Revenge

In terms of the horse world, I am a late-blooming equestrian. As a child, I attended sporadic horse camps and trail rides but I was no means a "rider." It wasn't until I was in my mid-thirties that I was searching for a hobby to call my own and to provide me with an outlet outside of working and mom-ing that I discovered horseback riding, ironically after my youngest son suggested we take a guided trail ride for my birthday. I signed up for lessons at a local riding facility and I was so nervous for the first session that I nearly turned around the car before arriving to the barn. Despite my nerves, it only took one lesson before I was hooked. Horses were for me. As a passionate animal lover, I knew instantly that I would one day own a horse: their sentience, their personalities, their smell - I loved it all. Being a beginner made this totally impractical so I continued to take regular lessons and helped out around the riding barn whenever I could. Once I gained enough experience to realistically entertain having my own horse, I enlisted the barn owner to help me find the right equine partner. (Sidebar: if you are a beginner looking for your own horse, I STRONGLY suggest getting an equine professional to aid in your search. I literally could not have found the right horse were it not for the support of my instructor.) She knew that I did not want to simply purchase a horse. We would need to find a rescue who was beginner-safe and easy enough to handle so that even my family could participate in grooming and ground training.

After meeting a few horses that were not the right match, another rider at the barn suggested we take a drive out to a nearby equestrian center which ran a certified off-track rehabilitation and adoption program for retired race horses. They had a young Thoroughbred gelding for adoption named Mario's Revenge and he sounded like he could match up with what I was looking for. My husband and I took the short drive out to meet Mario on a cold Sunday afternoon and I experienced literal "love at first sight." Mario was a 16.1h dark bay gelding with the most gorgeous mane and tail I had ever seen. The adoption facility told us that they called him "Fabio" because he was such a ridiculously handsome horse. But he wasn't just looks: he had the goofy, outgoing personality that I was looking for. Mario was only 6 years old but had been retired from racing after suffering a tendon injury. The adoption program had successfully rehabbed his injuries and he was now cleared for riding. We made plans to transfer Mario to my lesson barn the following week.

Mario's adoption photo

Once my adoption of Mario was complete, I obsessively researched everything I could about his past, learning that he had been raced 33 times over three years with three 1st-place finishes. He had earned over $55,000 in prize winnings for his owners. Mario had a champion pedigree and was a descendant of famed racing horses including Mr. Prospector and Seattle Slew. And again, that he had suffered a career-ending injury at age 5 which caused Mario to eventually wind up in the aftercare and adoption program where I found him. I was shocked that I could adopt such a majestic being for a paltry (in horse dollars - trust me I'm not rich) $1,500. And this is sort of when my awakening happened... the laws of supply & demand dictated that if I was able to get such a perfectly-perfect riding horse at a budget price, then there must be a bunch of these horses waiting in the wings. What gives?

Behind the Stall Doors

In trying to answer that very question, I learned what gives: the race tracks give. As in, they literally GIVE THESE HORSES AWAY to aftercare programs when they are no longer able to compete, which is usually due to either an injury or a non-competitive attitude. It sounds like a nice way to care for unusable horses but in reality, racing barn owners are discarding their unsellable goods, in effect transferring the burden and cost of medical care to someone else. The aftercare programs are almost always nonprofit organizations who rely on donor funds to cover the veterinary expenses associated with rehabbing an injured horse in addition to the insanely expensive costs of maintaining a horse in general. This means that racing owners make thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of dollars off their horses only to dump them when they are no longer income producing: and make no mistake that if there weren't nonprofit aftercare facilities who were accepting these horses, they would be euthanized. In fact, some of the truly scummy racehorse owners try to monetize their animals one final time, by selling them off to kill buyers where they are exported internationally for their meat.

At least that answers the question of why adoption costs are comparatively low for OTTB's, training needs aside, it is because caring nonprofits need to find suitable permanent homes for the never-ending supply of injured and retiring horses that the racing industry produces.

On the next post, I'll talk about the life of a racehorse and the challenges that future adopters face.

Mario's Revenge in the Winner's Circle

Mario being Mario, at my lesson barn


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