The near-certain closure of Ontario's Fort Erie racetrack at year's end means hundreds of people face the loss of their jobs – possibly their careers – and an uncertain future.
It could also mean an uncertain future for the hundreds of racehorses that call the 115-year-old track their home. But thanks to the efforts of a two-year-old program, those horses that won't be shipping to other tracks have an excellent chance of finding a new home and a new career.
Alexis Kacho-Sinke, an equine massage therapist with a passion for horses and racing, founded Second Start Thoroughbreds (www.secondstartthoroughbreds.org) with her cousin Kim Sinodinos in 2010. They saw too many horses running at Fort Erie that were winding up in the wrong place.
“If someone showed up on the backside with a trailer and some money, they could have horses,” said Kacho-Sinke. “Didn't matter who it was.”
One mare in particular – a 35-start maiden – grabbed Kacho-Sinke's attention. She said the trainer wouldn't feed her and wouldn't sell her to anyone. Kacho-Sinke said she outbid the “meat man”, bought the horse, and prevented her from going to slaughter.
“That horse, Anna, started Second Start Thoroughbreds. She's in my paddock right now.”
Kacho-Sinke trolled the backside, challenging trainers and owners, asking them how they could let their horses wind up at a slaughter sale. She told them she had started a new listing service that could help place retired runners in good homes. She was astounded by the positive response she received.
“They didn't have to embrace this, but they did whole-heartedly. Just goes to show that when people are given an alternative, they'll take it.”
Second Start is not a rescue. It is an “enhanced” listing service. The horses stay in the possession of the owner/trainer while Second Start advertises the horse and screens potential buyers. Kacho-Sinke charges no fees or commissions to the owners or trainers.
“I can't believe that they're willing to give me a week, two weeks to find a home,” she said. “It's on their dime. It's remarkable.”
Kacho-Sinke said the average sale price is about $800 per horse. The trainers/owners receive the money. And there are no fees to the buyers either.
The current meet is likely the last at Fort Erie because of the Ontario government's decision to end the Slots at Racetracks program, which helped the track on the U.S-Canada border stay afloat. Fort Erie's slots parlor was closed at the end of April, and management has set a December 31 closing date for the track, unless an unexpected solution can be worked out.
Since the current meet began, Second Start has placed 31 Thoroughbreds. From the beginning of the program, the total is over 200 – both sound and injured horses. Second Start also places Quarter Horses and Standardbreds.
“Every year, we try to say 'no horse left behind.' We want to make sure everyone gets somewhere safely,” said Kacho-Sinke. She noted that Fort Erie's culture has changed, too.
“You can't just show up with a trailer and a smile and expect to go shopping on the backside.”
She believes trainers and owners have embraced the concept because Second Start pre-screens buyers to make sure only serious, qualified people get through. Second Start begins the screening process well before a horse makes its final start so that things can move quickly once the horse is off the track.
“The trainers and owners deserve so much applause for how they've stood behind rehoming the horses,” said Kacho-Sinke. “I believe they are a model for the industry. Truly. They love their horses, and this the lower end of racing. These are $4,000 claimers. I wish all tracks had this system.”
In a testimonial on the Second Start website, Fort Erie trainer-owners Doug and Jenn Sroka said they appreciated having the power of social networking, advertising, and national exposure that the program provides.
“And since Second Start charges no fees or commissions for the service, the only motive is finding the horse an excellent and appropriate home. Alexis and Kim just have a true passion for match making. For the peace of mind this organization provides, we can't say thank you enough.”
Second Start isn't a charity in the technical sense. There are some private fundraisers with family and friends. Companies like Adena Springs Farm, Churchill Downs Inc. and Keeneland have donated prizes for those events, and there's a golf tournament in the fall. But this is really just a labor of love for Kacho-Sinke and her cousin, Kim.
“If a trainer wants to donate, that's great. I don't ask for it,” Kacho-Sinke said. “But last meet, the trainers and owners passed the hat and did a collection for us.”
Mindy Lovell, who operates the Spring Hill Farm boarding stable and the rescue/rehoming operation, Transitions Thoroughbreds, said Kacho-Sinke has horses “flying out the door” right now, as the track faces its likely end.
“The loss of Fort Erie is heart-breaking for many of us,” Lovell said. “(The horsemen) are trying very hard to do the right thing despite all of the terrible losses they are suffering personally.”
Kacho-Sinke said she's trying to partner with foster homes as an added protection for the Fort Erie runners, and she hopes Woodbine might embrace her system, once her work is done at Fort Erie.
“Horsemen at Fort Erie have seen the success rate,” she said. “It's a good feeling to know that you've had a successful racing career with these animals and then see them have a second career. They've really embraced that feeling.”
Thanks to the generosity of Three Chimneys Farm, the sponsor of Good News Friday, a donation of $100 will be made in support of Second Start Thoroughbreds. Three Chimneys will be donating $100 each and every week we bring you a story of people or organizations making a positive difference in our world.
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