“The future depends on what we do in the present.” – Mahatma Gandhi
It was about seven years ago that I wrote the first installment of what would become known as the “Aftercare Spotlight” series for the Paulick Report, and it's fitting that, for me, the journey ends where it all began. It was about a big, red horse who has long since passed onto greener pastures. He had a pair of old bowed tendons, the second of which came shortly before he was pulled up in the stretch at Retama Park in what would be his final start at age 9. It was his breeder and another of his previous owners who served as his guardian angels, following his career and stopping at nothing to track him down after they saw how that final race finished, saving him, after he was traded for a load of hay, from what would have been a trip to the stockyards, likely followed by a trip to a much worse place.
Thanks to Dr. Trisha Ziefle (breeder) and Mike Harbour (one of several former owners), Bayou Brass not only landed softly, but with time, care and love, he launched himself into an off-track career that lasted into his 20s and saw him win ribbons, trophies and year-end championships for how gracefully he could weave around hunter courses and soar over fences. More than that, though, he was loved – loved completely, unconditionally and intensely by his off-track owner Sarah Coleman until he took his final breath.
It was at the Keeneland January Sale in 2012 that Bayou Brass came up in a conversation – probably the last conversation at Keeneland of which he'd been the subject since he had failed to meet his reserve of $7,000 18 years earlier. I was working as the marketing director for a large Thoroughbred farm and talking to Brad Cummings, co-founder and at the time the president of the Paulick Report about aftercare and the need for it to be covered legitimately by the industry press and used the story of Bayou Brass as an example.
“I love the idea, but how will we find enough stories like that to publish something regularly? I don't even know how to cover that stuff or begin to know where to look,” said Brad.
“They're out there, I promise. I hear about them all the time. We'll have more stories than we know what to do with. I'll even write them myself,” I replied.
[This was 7 years ago, and I don't have exact auditory recall, but this is more or less how it went]
That following week I submitted my first story, “OTTB Showcase: Bayou Brass (a.k.a. Iggy)” and every week since then until today I have thoroughly enjoyed the privilege of telling literally hundreds of stories about horses' journeys from on-track life to off and the people who made their transition happen.
Every good thing must come to an end, and while I have so intensely enjoyed writing “Aftercare Spotlight,” the time has come for me to step back and focus my efforts elsewhere in an industry, sport and breed that I love. At the beginning of the year, I was named the executive director of the Retired Racehorse Project, a national 501(c)(3) organization aimed at increasing the value and demand for Thoroughbreds after racing as riding and show horses.
In no small way, I owe my life to the Thoroughbred. Members of this magnificent breed carried me through my first horse shows and helped me pay for college as we galloped around the racing oval each morning before class. It is because of Thoroughbreds that I got my first job after college and every job since. I've written about them for magazines and websites, advertised them for farms and helped them make the transition from go-pony to show pony. It is through the Thoroughbred – both off-track and on – that I have forged so many of my most treasured friendships and it is through a deep and mutual love and respect for Thoroughbreds that I found my soul mate.
While the movement began years prior, in the better part of the last decade we have seen a monumental shift in the Thoroughbred industry when it comes to taking care of our equine athletes. From the formation and/or proliferation of groups like the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, Thoroughbred Charities of America and the Retired Racehorse Project to initiatives like the TCA's Horses First Fund; The Jockey Club's Thoroughbred Incentive Program, the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association's Take The Lead Program and Thoroughbred Connect; the California Retirement Management Account and the steadily increasing number of Thoroughbred adoption programs and sanctuary facilities that have formed to transition or offer solace to the stars of our sport, we have seen the topic of aftercare go from being one that fought for credence and legitimacy to one that is front and center in every racing publication and industry conference worth its salt.
Thoroughbreds are making a resurgence as riding and show horses. People are seeking them out after their racing careers are behind them and the terms “OTTB” and “Retired Racehorse” have become not only accepted, but in many circles trendy.
Heck, we've seen the word “aftercare” become just that – a word. It has become commonplace terminology in the Thoroughbred industry that people know and understand, like “takeout” or “superfecta.”
But we still have far to go, and much to do.
As we've seen even recently in Louisiana, there are some still horses ending up in unacceptable situations, thrown away once they no longer serve their primary purpose by the very people tasked with caring for them. There are also those breeders, owners and trainers who want to, or at the very least are happy to do the right thing, but simply don't know how.
The organizations approved through the TCA and accredited through the TAA, as well as the many other viable aftercare organizations out there that for whatever reason do not meet the criteria set forth by these two clearinghouses, are doing great work and rehoming thousands of horses each year, but their current combined maximum capacity is simply not enough to accommodate the number of horses retiring from racing each year.
That is where the private market comes into play. Those who purchase or are given horses off the track – whether their intention is to put a foundation of off-track training and miles on them in order to resell them as show, lesson, trail, therapy or recreational riding horses or simply to love that horse until its dying day like Sarah loved Bayou Brass – they are helping to fill in the gap.
Organizations like T. I. P. and TAKE2 that are offering prize money and classes for Thoroughbreds, horse shows around the country that are catering exclusively to the breed and the $100,000 Thoroughbred Makeover are giving equestrians strong incentives with meaningful dollars attached to chose Thoroughbreds over other horses to have in their show stable.
From running, scrap-booking, video-gaming and model trains to aviation, finance and tech, pretty much any industry or hobby one can think of has one or more publications catering to both those who are passionate about it as an amateur and those who have made a business out of it. With this line of thought as the catalyst, the RRP, a membership-based organization that offers anyone with an interest in off-track Thoroughbreds a community of which to be part, publishes a quarterly magazine that consistently offers a robust rundown of content aimed at those with an interest in Thoroughbreds.
As Helen Keller so famously said, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”
The Thoroughbred industry is massive and multifaceted. It takes thousands of people around the country to get all of these incredible horses bred, born, raised, bought/sold, trained and raced. It's no surprise, then, that it also takes literally thousands of people, working from a number of different angles, to get these horses retired, retrained and repurposed to make room for the next generation of Thoroughbreds to get into the starting gates and take aim at the finish line. There is no one entity that can manage the task alone, but I strongly believe today more than ever in the history of our sport we have a solid lineup of people and groups tackling this issue. They are playing a key role in supporting those whose hobbies and livelihoods are based on Thoroughbreds, and the more validation, legitimacy and financial support they receive, the greater their ability to accomplish their mission.
Each year after we gorge ourselves on turkey and all the fixings on Thanksgiving, shop 'til we drop on Black Friday and distract ourselves from work by shopping online to fend off the lingering carb-coma on Cyber Monday, we have the opportunity to give back on Giving Tuesday.
Next week on Giving Tuesday and throughout the Season of Giving, I urge you to support those Thoroughbred industry initiatives that matter the most to you. They may be the ones you feel are doing the most good nationally on behalf of horses and horsemen, or they might be the ones in your area helping you with your own horses. They might be the ones you feel are creating more opportunities for Thoroughbreds off the track, and thus creating demand for them in non-racing circles, or they might be those small organizations you feel are critically under-funded but are doing damn good work for the few horses they are able to focus upon each year.
On this, the day before Thanksgiving, I am thankful not only to the Paulick Report for having been afforded the opportunity to write this column for so many years, but to those who shared their stories, their thoughts and their lives with these horses.
While I will no longer be penning “Aftercare Spotlight,” I am forever committed to the Thoroughbred, and if there are ways I can be of help or support to any of you in your commitment to the breed, please let me know ([email protected]).
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