This past weekend, Justify carried the hopes and dreams of millions around the Belmont oval and across the finish line to become racing's 13th Triple Crown winner. In the minutes and hours after the race, social media lit up with everything from well-wishes and jubilation to conspiracy theories, comparisons and criticisms.
As so often happens on racing's biggest days, opponents of horse racing used Justify's win as a platform to denounce the sport on social media, accusing owners and breeders in the industry of looking at their horses as only business commodities and not caring about their well-being once their racing days are done.
Carleigh Fedorka clapped back. Fedorka has spent the better part of her professional career entrenched in the horse industry, working on breeding farms, at the Thoroughbred sales and retraining former racehorses as riding and show mounts. She is a passionate proponent of Thoroughbred racing and breeding and regularly offers an insider's view of the “whys behind the whats” in the Sport of Kings on her popular blog A Yankee in Paris.
It just so happens that Fedorka currently has a horse in training named Theory that raced for the same ownership group (WinStar Farm, SF Bloodstock and China Racing Club) as Justify. The ill-informed comments she was seeing online prompted her to make a lengthy post on Facebook Sunday commending Theory's owners for doing right by their charge and retiring him when the time was right. It was met by a mix of support and criticism, with skeptics countering that Theory's story is an exception from the norm.
“I just couldn't stomach the comments about the neglect of Thoroughbreds and their eventual fate for slaughter,” she said. “Ignorance is bliss. Just as I truly don't understand the behind-the-scenes of a reining facility or a Tennessee Walking Horse show, many sport horse devotees have never experienced a Thoroughbred nursery, the backside of a racetrack or an aftercare facility. We have made leaps and bounds of improvement in just the last ten years, so the ignorance is decreasing, but it still remains.”
Fedorka, who recently completed her PhD in Veterinary Science at the University of Kentucky with a focus on reproductive health and is currently working on postdoctoral research at the university's Gluck Equine Research Center, was dismayed by the lack of understanding and mischaracterization of Thoroughbred aftercare. Being the consummate scholar, she set her mind to making the situation a teachable moment and engaged her network of Thoroughbred-lovers (both on-track and off) to help her spread the word.
“I received a ton of comments [on my first post] saying it was nice that one Thoroughbred owner did the right thing by his horses, but that didn't change the number of bad guys in the business,” Fedorka wrote in her post. “And I have to say that I have been in the thick of this industry for a decade now, and the data is skewed so much more heavily in the correct direction. The number of good guys so heavily outweighs the bad.”
She went on to share the stories of six Thoroughbreds she had retrained after their owners had responsibly retired them from racing, then put out a call to the masses encouraging others to do the same and use the hashtag #ForTheHorse to unite the movement.
The response was remarkable.
“The post spread faster than I ever thought it would. I truly just wanted the “good guys” to get their moment, as well as to educate the rest of society as to what we are doing,” said Fedorka. “So many of these trainers, owners and farms do right by their horses, but we never hear their stories because it's not something that they promote. A horse retiring from a racetrack isn't considered a victory to most owners, so these stories aren't highlighted like they are when their horses win a big race. But along with the One Last Race movement, I feel as though these owners and trainers who retire their horses sound should be celebrated.”
While no one can argue that great strides have been made in the realm of aftercare and racehorse retirement in the past decade, Fedorka may have touched on a key factor in why the perception of the non-racing public has been slow to change. The “industry” – from The Jockey Club, the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and NTRA to the many aftercare organizations throughout the country – has been keen to spread the message through their channels in recent years, and it has had a significant impact. Mentions of aftercare and owners pledging a portion of their horses' earnings in big races have become the norm on major race days. Those efforts have not only gone to help thousands of horses find success after the track, but they have indeed moved the needle on public perception.
It may now be time, however, for the owners, trainers and breeders of these great champions to also boldly and loudly celebrate those horses who didn't achieve greatness on the track but earned championship status in the eyes of someone else as a show horse, polo pony, lesson horse, therapy mount or one of the countless other vocations at which a retired racehorse can excel.
If the connections of these coveted animals, from the highest levels of the sport to the blue-collar claimers, continually and consistently offer answers to the questions our critics keep asking, mindsets will change and progress may come at an even faster clip than we've been seeing.
So, if you're on social media and have a connection to a horse that, thanks to his or her racing connections, has made the successful transition from racing to a second career, share it loudly and proudly using the #ForTheHorse tag and help flood the Internet with positive stories about the industry and horses we love.
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky and was recently named the Executive Director of the Retired Racehorse Project. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She is the go-to food source for one dog, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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