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Fresh Starts

Former racehorses can transition to second careers—with a little help from their friends.

At Shamrock Farm, a thoroughbred breeding operation in Woodbine, the foaling barn is an oasis of warm light during a ferocious Maryland ice storm. Inside, as many as 30 broodmares nibble hay, stir with discomfort, and await the birth of the next generation of thoroughbred racing. Throughout the night, a lone individual on “foal watch” monitors the mares in case of delivery complications. In a stall deeply bedded with straw, a foal, hours old, staggers to its mother’s side to nurse—the newest player in a centuries-old love affair between Maryland and thoroughbred racing that will reach its annual peak at this month’s Preakness Stakes.

This future racehorse, his fuzzy back less than a foot wide, will carry the dreams of his owners and trainers, who hope he will develop into, if not a Triple Crown contender, at least a money-earner. But what are the odds? Approximately 22,000 thoroughbreds were born in North America last year—over 400 in Maryland alone. Only a fraction of these make it to the racetrack, waylaid by either injury or mediocre talent. Of those that do race, many will never make money for their owners, who can spend thousands of dollars per month to keep a horse in training at the track. Even the elite horses, the ones that manage to get to the track and make money, will have short careers. Many retire by the age of five, and, unless they attain superstar status, their futures are anything but certain.

A thoroughbred foal whose life began with a $20,000 investment may, a few years later, be sold by the pound and put on a truck to Mexico or Canada, bound for slaughter. (Horse slaughter was effectively banned in the United States between 2007 and 2011, then banned again in 2014.)

That’s where MidAtlantic Horse Rescue comes in. Founded in 2002 by Beverly Strauss and Ginny Suarez, MidAtlantic Horse Rescue is one of several Maryland operations working to give these equine athletes second chances by retraining them for new careers in other equestrian sports—or simply as family pets.

“To toss them aside for a horrific fate when they are not making money is unconscionable.”

“These thoroughbreds were born and bred for our sport and our pleasure, and to toss them aside for a horrific fate when they are not making money is unconscionable,” says Strauss, a former racehorse trainer and lifelong horsewoman. “We owe them so much more than that.”

Located on 158 acres on the banks of the Sassafras River on the Eastern Shore, MidAtlantic Horse Rescue started when Strauss and Suarez pulled three horses from a slaughter auction and rehabilitated and retrained them for new homes. Two horses became eventers. (Eventing is a multidisciplinary competition, combining elements of steeplechasing, dressage, and show jumping.) The third, a chestnut mare named First By Far, became a show horse. “We were thrilled when those first adoptions happened,” Strauss says. It was wonderful to see someone so happy to have a lovely new horse of their own. We went right back to the auction and saved another one.” The organization is now credited with saving more than 1,000 former racehorses.

But the economics are tough: Each horse costs about $500 to buy. Then there are the costs of feeding, shoeing, massage, and veterinary and chiropractic care. Because of this, Strauss can only save about a dozen horses at a time. She is frank when describing how she chooses: “I look at the eye first, then down to see if he’s got good legs.” She acknowledges that it’s tough to leave so many behind, but explains, “You can save an old broken-down one, but you’ll have him for the next twenty years. [If] you save a sound one and find it a home, you can go back to save one more.”

Sometimes, she receives help from unlikely sources—the so-called “kill buyers” who purchase, usually at auction, horses for slaughter. “Some of these guys have hearts, too,” Strauss says, explaining that her source will contact her when he has a horse he thinks she’d be interested in. “I got a call the other day. The guy said he had four horses, but I only had room for two. So the other two went [to slaughter],” she says, her penetrating gaze wavering before fixing on a small group of horses grazing on a hillside.

The horses arrive at the farm in various conditions. Many come with hoof problems due to neglect, which her husband, Tom Strauss, a farrier, treats. Earlier on, some of the horses came to the farm suffering from drug withdrawal, often from erythropoietin—a blood-doping agent known as EPO. The drug can cause extreme health problems and sometimes even death. But Strauss notes it is rare these days, thanks to improved testing techniques for detecting banned substances. Whatever the horses’ conditions, “They all need time to rest from being exhausted mentally and physically,” Strauss says.

Once the horses are medically sound, training begins and can range from introducing them to the mounting block (in racing, jockeys are boosted onto their backs) to teaching them that horse shows—though superficially similar to races (crowds, a public address system, lots of activity)—require different behavior. (No bolting!)

Preventing ex-racers from needing organizations like Strauss’s is the ultimate goal for animal advocates. Maryland’s racing industry has taken the problem more seriously than most. In 2008, the Maryland Jockey Club initiated a no-slaughter policy, which stipulates that any person caught sending a horse to slaughter or transporting a horse to an auction where slaughter buyers operate will be banned from Maryland tracks. The rule seems to have deterred the most flagrant practitioners. Still, some circumvent the rules by taking horses directly to the “kill buyers” on feedlots, where the horses are held before being shipped out of the country.

“I’m a big fan of the thoroughbred. . . . When you look back, they’ve been some of our greatest horses.”

When asked about the underground market, Maryland Jockey Club director of racing and racing secretary Georganne Hale is adamant that such individuals can’t hide in the shadows for long. “We’ll find out,” she says, “No one keeps a secret on the racetrack. People who love horses will squeal.”

Not only was Maryland’s racing industry one of the first to implement the anti-slaughter policy, but it also has taken the lead in the collection and disbursement of financial assistance to accredited rescue operations, such as Strauss’s MidAtlantic Horse Rescue. Funding comes from money collected for every start in a race. Furthermore, many trainers, breeders, and owners choose to donate directly. That’s as it should be, says Katharine Voss, a co-owner of Chanceland Farm, a breeding and training facility in Howard County. “From farm to grave, we all share responsibility,” she says.

But not every state has been as proactive as Maryland, and meat buyers are still busy moving ex-racers. Strauss and her brethren are determined to prove that these horses are worth more alive than dead.

Kimberly Godwin Clark, a retired racehorse owner and former exercise rider, now directs Thoroughbred Placement Resources (TPR) at her farm in Upper Marlboro. Through TPR, she has assisted in re-homing hundreds of former racehorses, many of which have gone on to brilliant second careers in eventing, show jumping, fox hunting, and pleasure riding. Clark emphasizes the importance of training thoroughbreds for second careers as champion sport horses. “We have to get these horses into the upper levels [of competition] so people will want and keep them.”

The key is marketing the thoroughbred’s versatility and athleticism. The Davidsonville-based Retired Racehorse Project has created the Thoroughbred Makeover competition, a national showcase in which contestants retrain ex-racehorses for up to nine months before competing in 10 disciplines. Last year, it was held at Pimlico Race Course. This year, it will be held at the Kentucky Horse Park in October. One of Clark’s entries this year is a big, gray, Maryland-bred thoroughbred she rescued in December. The horse, named Not Apologizing, but affectionately called Pauley, sustained an injury before he even ran a race and needed time to recuperate. After nearly five months of stall rest, he recently was cleared to begin limited training. Clark plans to take it slow with Pauley and “just see what he wants to be when he grows up.”

At Broad Run Farm, a show-horse training facility in Poolesville, another such retired racer is further along in the process and making quite a name for himself. On a brisk late-winter day, Outrageous, a chestnut gelding the color of the setting sun, moves with the reliable rhythm of a metronome over a course of fences. Kevin Bruce, a veteran competitor and trainer at the farm, watches this off-the-track thoroughbred—or OTTB as they’re called in the show world—execute a perfect course of fences with his young rider. According to Bruce, Outrageous has taken the show-hunter world by storm, meeting and beating bigger, fancier, imported European-bred horses in top competitions. It’s the beginning of more and more happy stories for OTTBs, says Bruce. In fact, in his experience, retired racers are easier to transition to the show ring because the horses have seen it all already, and really love a crowd. “I’m a big fan of the thoroughbred—always have been and always will be. When you look back, they’ve been and continue to be some of our greatest horses,” he says.

Of course, not every horse will become a champion—but that doesn’t mean they don’t have value.

In September 2014, TPR launched the Hero Horses Program, in which active-duty military, wounded warriors, veterans, and their families are invited to the farm to meet and help the horses—and perhaps themselves.

The retired racehorses and veterans have much in common: They’re both highly trained in specialty skills, dedicated, and often need help adjusting to the next phase of their lives. Retired Air Force staff sergeant Alicia Watkins inspired the program with her frequent visits to the stable. Watkins survived the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and then, while serving in Afghanistan, sustained a spinal-chord injury from a suicide-bomber. She says she came to TPR feeling “cast away after 16 years in the military.” Now she finds solace just being around the horses. She says being at the farm lessens her stress and notes that, “This program would motivate so many other warriors who need to recalibrate their minds into a new career.” Plus, unlike psychiatric therapy, there is no stigma or agenda associated with participation in the program.

As Watkins says, “[At the farm], they are just vets trying to help a racehorse find a new home. Some of these guys just need a purpose, to be useful.” The same could be said for the horses.