When Louisiana state health officials began dealing with the EHV-1 outbreak at Fair Grounds in January, part of the task was working backwards after a new case cropped up to find all horses that may have been exposed to the illness. As state animal health officials did their detective work, it's unlikely they imagined an infectious disease outbreak would reveal gaps in racetrack anti-slaughter policies.
When a sample pulled from a horse in the receiving barn returned positive for EHV-1 on Jan. 2, a new level of difficulty was added to the disease tracking process as officials had to find horses exposed to that positive case that had already left the facility. One of those horses was Rough C's Ahead, a Marvin Davis trainee. On Dec. 29, Rough C's Ahead ran in Fair Grounds' first race, where he finished last of nine. It was the third effort for the son of Closing Argument, and he had struggled to finish better than fifth.
By Jan. 9, an update from the state of Louisiana indicated the gelding had been found by state health officials at a livestock auction in Pitkin, La. A horse rescue advocate had noticed a sale posting for Rough C's Ahead on a Facebook page affiliated with Thompson's Horse Lot & Co. on Jan. 3. Thompson's Horse Lot & Co., located in Pitkin, offers followers of the Facebook page the opportunity to buy horses kept in the lot. Followers are told horses left unpurchased are rounded up and sent to slaughter in Mexico.
The question of horse slaughter isn't only an ethical or moral issue, it's a question of policy and enforcement, too.
Social media attention, particularly from Facebook groups focused on rehoming horses found at auctions frequented by kill buyers, has increased public pressure on the industry to close the pipeline from track to kill truck. Industry organizations have funded numerous nonprofits designed to give owners and trainers a responsible alternative to slaughter when unsuccessful horses must retire. There's no question the sport's major players oppose any unnecessary disposal of unwanted horses in this way, but policing the behavior has turned out to be easier said than done. As a result, rescue advocates say, more Thoroughbreds are leaving the track bound for slaughter in Mexico and Canada than fans would like to believe, and relatively few owners and trainers are publicly sanctioned for their role in the journey.
A private affair
State racing commissions have largely kept out of the business of anti-slaughter policies, leaving the tracks to create their own rules. Like anything else in Thoroughbred racing, the splintering of responsibility has resulted in a range of policy language and enforcement. Tracks articulate their anti-slaughter requirements and applicable punishments in the stall application provided to horsemen at the start of the meet; the horseman's signature on the application constitutes agreement to the provided terms.
Predictably, some tracks have stronger wording than others in this policy.
At the Fair Grounds, Evangeline Downs, Delta Downs, Keeneland, and Ellis Park, the most recent available stall application clauses state owners and trainers who “sell a horse for slaughter” may have stalls revoked if that horse was previously stabled at said track.
Others, like Tampa Bay Downs' application, are more specific. “Any owners or trainers stabled at TBD found to have directly or indirectly sold a horse for slaughter will have his or her stalls permanently revoked,” the clause reads. “TBD requires its horsemen to conduct due diligence on those buying horses and encourages them to support rescue and adoption efforts by finding humane ways of dealing with horses unable to continue racing.”
Santa Anita Park has similar language to Tampa Bay.
In other cases, things are less clear. Churchill Downs' stall application for its 2017 spring meet included no mention of slaughter, but a note on Churchill Downs Inc.'s website contained language indicating an owner or trainer “found to have sold a horse for slaughter” would have stalls revoked at all CDI tracks.
The New York Racing Association's most recent stall applications for Aqueduct and Saratoga do not contain any anti-slaughter language, but the organization adopted a broad policy in 2009 that applies to owners and trainers “directly and indirectly” selling horses to slaughter.
Many states have a catch-all clause that allows commissions or stewards to sanction a licensee for “conduct detrimental to racing,” which could be used to block entries in this type of situation.
Enforcement challenges—or not?
There are two troubles with the most common anti-slaughter language, which indicates trainers will lose stalls if it's determined they are selling horses to slaughter. For one, it can't apply to trainers shipping horses into a facility. Such was the case with Rough C's Ahead, who ran out of the receiving barn at Fair Grounds. Trainer Marvin Davis does not keep stalls there, and according to information provided by Churchill Downs Inc., Rough C's was one of only three starters for Davis at Fair Grounds in 12 months.
The other challenge with policies worded in this manner is a lack of timeline or specifics on the trainer's role in how the horse wound up in the slaughter pipeline. Track officials often have no proof of what a trainer did or didn't know about the person he sold a horse to. Horses ending up at “kill pen” auctions may also have been run through smaller, intermediary sales first, which adds confusion to the question of responsibility.
“Let's assume you do refuse entries from somebody. Then you really have to prove the person deliberately sold the horse directly,” said Mike Ziegler, executive director of racing at Churchill Downs Inc. “If there's a middle man, and you refuse the entry, you'd have a hard burden to prove why you're not taking the entry, which brings up the question of, 'Are they going to sue you?'
“I'm not sure how you could do anything else from an enforcement situation because how can you control what somebody you sell a horse to does with it?”
Then there's the question of time. In some cases, a trainer may provide a horse a suitable home off the track or sell it for breeding purposes. If the horse ends up in the pen years later, the degrees of separation between horse and trainer have increased exponentially, and it seems less likely the last racing connections were consulted about the horse's fate. Still, it would seem there should be a cut-off somewhere, and it's hard to know where that spot is.
“I want to emphasize that Delta Downs has zero tolerance for the type of activity that you describe and has a strict anti-slaughter policy in place,” said Chris Warren, director of racing at Delta Downs and Evangeline Downs, upon being asked about the specifics of anti-slaughter policies at those facilities. “To our knowledge, no horses stabled at Delta Downs have been shown to be at a slaughter holding facility awaiting transportation to slaughter. Again, we will not tolerate this activity, and we will permanently revoke the stall privileges of any owner or trainer we learn has engaged in this activity.”
Warren was then provided with a list of 16 registered names and tattoo numbers of horses racing at one of the two tracks that subsequently ended up at Thompson's Horse Lot, according to a rescue watchdog. In one case, a horse raced four days before being listed for sale at Thompson's, while others went as long as eight months in between running and appearing in the lot. Seven of the 16 took less than a month between their last race and the date they appeared at the sale lot.
Warren questioned whether the sixteen horses were at Thompson's awaiting transport to a slaughterhouse, or if they were simply offered for sale there. Like many horse auction lots, Thompson's allows social media users to pay a preset price to “bail out” the horse. Those not sold to private individuals in this manner are said to be loaded on a truck bound for a slaughterhouse.
Does the appearance of a horse under these conditions constitute a violation of the policies at Delta or Evangeline? Warren told the Paulick Report he is investigating the list and asking questions of the horses' last known trainers. It's not yet known how many, if any, may lose their stalls as a result. It's unlikely any will be refused entry, however.
“Our policy only covers trainers who have stalls at our track,” said Warren. “Trainers who race at Delta Downs, but who do not have stalls at our track, are not under our jurisdiction – and we do not have the ability to punish these trainers, per the Louisiana Gaming Commission.”
Jill Jensen works to rehome horses by connecting them with rescues and private individuals, and helping to raise money for slaughter-bound animals. Jensen, working with others in the rescue world, has researched past connections of horses appearing at Thompson's, and has been informed tracks cannot take action against trainers not stabled on their backstretch.
“There was always an excuse on why they couldn't reprimand them,” said Jensen, who considers herself a fan of Thoroughbred racing and an amateur handicapper. “Obviously, policies need to be changed because these small-time guys who make $20,000 to $30,000 a year [training] according to Equibase are making enough money off meat and auctions that this is worth it to them, and they can't be held responsible because they don't have stalls.”
Charles Gardiner, executive director of the Louisiana Racing Commission, did not return multiple requests seeking comment on the commission's role in such policies.
Some have chosen enforcement anyway
Some tracks have decided to take action against trainers violating policy, regardless of what the horsemen did or didn't know at the time of sale.
Now-dormant Suffolk Downs instituted a zero-tolerance policy on horse slaughter in 2008 and banned four trainers and one owner for violating the policy a few months later. An anonymous source tipped the track that five horses had ended up at New Holland, an auction known to be frequented by slaughter buyers. The trainers claimed they gave the horses to a third party and were under the impression they were going to a children's camp.
“I give my horses away to reliable people all the time,” said trainer Gerry LaFleur at the time. “This was a very innocent thing that happened, and they blew this so far out of proportion.”
Sargent, LaFleur, and D'Angelo were later reinstated after the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association protested Suffolk's decision.
In 2010, two horsemen at NYRA were investigated to see if they had violated its “direct or indirect” knowledge language; details of the findings were not presented to the media, except that both (including John Campo Jr., brother to then-NYRA Vice President P.J. Campo) were cleared of any wrongdoing.
In 2012, Mountaineer Racetrack excluded Mark Wedig for his involvement in a violation of its anti-slaughter policy. Mountaineer's policy stated owners and trainers “shall not directly or indirectly cause a horse to be put to slaughter,” even though the two horses he had sent on their way were ultimately not slaughtered. Wedig appealed to the West Virginia Racing Commission and was denied.
More recently, Tampa Bay Downs announced sanctions against trainer Horacio Barbaran for allegedly violating that track's policy. Barbaran didn't keep stalls at the track, so Tampa Bay Downs took enforcement one step further, becoming the only track to publicly strip a trainer of his ability to enter races as a result of policy violation. Officials there told the Paulick Report he has been blocked from the entry box indefinitely.
What lies ahead
Owners of so-called kill auctions are always trying to stay one step ahead of regulators, both at racetracks and other government institutions, as they work to keep the supply/demand streams open. Some have stopped identifying Thoroughbreds by their registered names or tattoo numbers when selling them online or at auction, and they've discouraged auction attendees from flipping lips to identify racehorses. It's unclear how much of this change in policy is impacted by the headache of fielding a social media firestorm over a horse's identity, and how much is related to a desire to protect the horsemen who bring horses to sale. Twice in the past year, the Paulick Report has published cases of horses' lip tattoos being mutilated or burned in an attempt to obscure their identities and presumably, the official records tied to those identities. Rescue workers indicate these mutilations are becoming more and more common at kill auctions. Of course, rescuers can and have pulled DNA samples to identify horses despite these practices; the Horacio Barbaran case resulted from one such identification.
A report from the Blood-Horse in 2015 hinted kill buyers may be trending towards purchasing horses privately and hauling them en masse across the border to Canada or Mexico. That kind of underground dealing would both make it harder for rescue advocates to intercept horses, and for racetrack officials to investigate a horse's path to the slaughter pipeline.
Jill Jensen said some kill pen owners have made claims they will stop offering Thoroughbreds for bail, not wanting to deal with the hassle. She believes any such claims are fueled by emotion and often retracted; she says a retired racehorse's commercial appeal to social media purchasers is greater than the per-pound price a kill buyer will pay. She has witnessed auction house employees emphasize that a horse is “fresh off the track” or “still has his racing plates.”
“The good thing about the kill pens is, they're greedy,” she said. “There's a market for Thoroughbreds. They'll say, 'We're never going to list them again,' but it [may not last]. By listing them, they're making more money.”
Jensen said she has been warned not to call too much attention to the difficulty of anti-slaughter policy enforcement. Some in the rescue community worry that driving kill buyers underground will make it harder to save horses.
“What's the alternative?” asked Jensen. “To allow this to continue isn't sustainable. It's terrible for the sport, for the horses. The alternative is not doing anything at all and allowing this to go on unaddressed, and it'll only get worse.
“Somebody's going to find a way to ship some of these drug-laden horses to slaughter. We can't stop kill buyers from slaughtering Thoroughbreds, but we can stop trainers from giving them Thoroughbreds … and provide trainers with another option.”
In Louisiana, Jensen said trainers have access to the Gulf Coast Thoroughbred Network, which operates similarly to CANTER, listing horses for sale out of trainers' barns. The network also vets potential purchasers. Jensen suspects many horses could get a higher sale price through the Gulf Coast network than from a slaughter buyer and wonders if trainers know there's both a commercially-friendly and humane option for retirement.
In the meantime, the Rough C's Ahead incident has Mike Ziegler, who spent six years as the executive director of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Safety and Integrity Alliance, thinking about a way to crack down. Although it's too early to say whether the anti-slaughter policy at Fair Grounds or other CDI tracks will change, Ziegler said it's in the works.
“I still need to wrap hands around how you prove [a trainer sold a horse to slaughter knowingly] but if it's a deterrent whatsoever, it's a step in the right direction,” he said.
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