On June 4, Doug O'Neill Racing Stable was contacted about a horse on an auction lot in Pennsylvania that was in danger of being sent to slaughter. The horse, identified as Dr. Mohrbacher, had been purchased for a client of O'Neill's as a 2-year-old in training in 2006 and subsequently made three starts under O'Neill's name in the summer of 2007 before being claimed at Del Mar that fall. He went on to race three more years for various connections in California and later Florida, with his final start coming in February of 2010.
O'Neill Racing Stable Operations Manager Sharla Rae Sanders fielded inquiries via email, Facebook direct messages and public posts about the horse.
“I had many messages of varying levels of pleas to downright insults about 'what we did [to the horse],'” said Sharla Rae, who says many of the commenters thought it had been O'Neill's stable that had sent the horse to the auction. “There were several nasty posts on the Doug O'Neill Racing Stable page on Facebook and on Doug's personal page showing a horse and saying that Doug trained it. We were lectured on our responsibility to the horse and were told because we had won the Kentucky Derby we should do something for the horse… I was being educated on the ills of racing while trying to figure out what was going on.”
As it turned out, the horse in question had been mis-identified and was not Dr. Mohrbacher, and thus was never affiliated with Doug O'Neill Racing Stable (which is an equally important topic, but one for another day). A representative from the group initially attempting to network the horse offered an apology via email, but the damage had been done.
This is a scenario that plays out all too often in the world of equine rescue. Many horses who end up at auctions are unidentifiable to a stranger. Unless one knows the horse personally, it is nearly impossible to know where they came from and whose hands they passed through over the years to end up in their current situation.
Thoroughbreds, however, are different. Any Thoroughbred that has raced is given a tattoo on the inside of their upper lip that identifies exactly who they are. Everything in the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry is cataloged, so if a horse's tattoo is even partially legible, one can easily research a horse's breeder and racing connections.
There are many organizations around the country whose volunteers go to auctions to find, identify and network Thoroughbreds through Facebook and other forms of social media with a goal of securing their salvation from the slaughter pipeline through donations, sponsorship, or other forms of support.
Impassioned animal activists who follow these Facebook pages sometimes take situations into their own hands, trying desperately to do their part to help Thoroughbreds who have ended up in auction houses frequented by “kill buyers.” They research these horses' backgrounds and connections, reaching out to them with pleas for help.
However, it can be a well-meaning but uncoordinated effort. People unaffiliated with the horse or organization — unaware of efforts already underway — reach out to former racing connections in an effort to assist with getting the horse out of the auction situation. While their intentions are noble, their approach can be disconcerting.
Bev Strauss, co-founder and president of MidAtlantic Thoroughbred Rescue, is familiar with the scenario.
“It's the vigilante types – those who, unbeknownst to the organization working on behalf of the horse, take it upon themselves to contact former racing connections,” said Bev. “Often they don't understand that it wasn't the racing connections that put the horse in a bad spot. These people [the racing connections] are simply the last ones on public record as being affiliated with the horse. They communicate with these people in a very accusatory manner, naturally putting the recipient of the communication on the defensive.”
Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue used to post the registered names of horses they found on auction lots on their Facebook page but changed their policy when they found third parties were reaching out to horses' previous connections on their behalf without permission or affiliation with the organization.
“Without realizing it, they were sometimes duplicating and often cannibalizing our own efforts,” said Bev. “We would hear stories about emotionally-charged phone calls to horses' former trainers or owners accusing them of putting the horse in that situation and literally screaming at them to demand their help. That is not how a reputable organization operates. That is not how we handle situations. So, we changed to only putting nicknames or barn names of horses on the Facebook posts.”
Breeders, trainers, owners often receive inflammatory communications from people they don't know, such as the ones described by Sharla Rae that were sent to Doug O'Neill Racing Stable. Sometimes, these communications are from people who have no formal affiliation with the organization helping the horse and they vary on (or lack) key information, such as what the horse's “bail fee” is, how long the horse has before going through the auction or shipping to slaughter, who the appropriate contact person is for the horse and what efforts are currently underway to assist with the horse.
Sharla Rae, who has been involved with Thoroughbred retirement for years, is well-versed on navigating aftercare channels. She rehomes many of the horses who retire from racing while in training with Doug and enjoys hearing about and sharing with the stable staff stories of what their former charges have accomplished in their off-track careers.
On the occasions when she is contacted by someone about a former trainee found at an auction house, it is typically several years or more after the horse has retired from racing (in Dr. Mohnbacher's case, nine years after being in O'Neill's barn). Logically, the horse has also changed hands several times.
“Social media is a blessing and a curse and the advent of 'Googling anything you want' is a great tool to find information, but it can make a situation go from bad to worse quickly,” said Sharla Rae. “First off, I do my research when I'm contacted. We have a database of every single horse Doug has trained, the time period in our barn, the race record at the time, who the owners were. I read notes, if any, telling me any history of where the horse went – if it was claimed, rehomed, etc. Then, I check to verify where the horse currently is and who seems to be taking the lead from saving it from the auction lot.
While Sharla Rae says these situations do not happen often, when they do arise, she acts swiftly and methodically to assist.
“With years of experience behind me, I am able to pretty quickly determine how dire the situation is. Many times, by the time we find out, the horse may already be purchased or funds have been raised and we simply say 'if there's anything else you need, please let us know,'” said Sharla Rae.
“I had a situation a few months ago and was privately contacted about a horse that would possibly be at risk. I contacted Neigh Savers in Northern California to see if they would help broker the release of the horse and they were able to do so with funds “pledged” by the horse's former owner. Once a couple of years ago, we were contacted about a horse out of state. Again, it was a quick phone call saying we would reimburse the bail money if the horse could be purchased and had a home to go to. My concern is making sure the call is legit, the plea is legit – because trainers have been duped – and the horse will have someone responsible to take it in. It's one thing to rally the troops, but it is just as important that the next place the horse goes is going to do right by him or her and provide the quarantine time, place to be rehabilitated and adopted out again or retrained. I take it all into consideration.”
Bev agreed, noting that the initial funds needed to save a horse from a kill pen are often miniscule when compared to what the horse will need long term.
“Often, these horses need a lot of vet work, rehabilitation or other services. The purchase is the easy part compared to the rehab,” said Bev. “These are the things that so often the vigilante-types don't concern themselves with. They fancy themselves professional Facebook horse rescuers, but they don't do anything constructive to help support the horse long term.”
At the heart of the issue is that all parties involved share a mutual desire to help horses when others have failed them. They agree that while social media has created new issues in the world of horse rescue, the positives far exceed the negatives, as it has raised awareness and been a catalyst for change.
“There are a lot of people who are alerted about horses they once knew through social media and they want to help however they can, even if it has been years since they owned or trained the horse,”
said Bev. “The racing industry is stepping up. They are really making strides, with the TCA, TAA and the ASPCA Rescuing Racers initiative.”
Bev and Sharla Rae agreed that the best thing people can do when they want to help a horse they see online in a kill pen situation is to research before reacting.
“See if a non-profit, known rescue group or advocate seems to have a handle on the situation. If a communication is to be made to a horse's former connections, it is often best for it to come from someone who can truly reach the person and have a rapport with them,” said Sharla Rae. “Ideally it's a phone call or email asking for assistance, offering an appraisal of the situation in a calm manner and then coming up with a solution that benefits the horse without attacking, slandering and using libel to garner attention.”
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She holds board affiliations with the Make a Wish Foundation, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the Retired Racehorse Project, among others. While she currently has no plans to build an arc, she is the go-to food source for two dogs, 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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