Sonny Ellen of Bryan, Texas, is 82, a bail bondsman by trade for nearly a half century, and a lifelong horse owner. Two weeks ago, Ellen said he was blindsided when he got a call from Mindy Willis, his trainer at Sam Houston Race Park, saying track management told her Ellen had been banned for violating the track's anti-slaughter policy. She was given 72 hours to remove Ellen's horses.
“Someone had posted on Facebook that I sold a horse for slaughter,” Ellen said. “I had my first foal at 11. I'm 82 now. Other than when I was in college I've owned and raced horses for over 60 years and I've never sold one to slaughter.”
Ellen had brought five of his horses to the Elkhart Horse Auctions in Elkhart, Texas, on Jan. 20, including Mula Run, an 8-year-old gelding by Mula Gula he'd bred and raced over six seasons. Mula Run had earned $103,941 but failed to hit the board in nine starts in 2017.
Mula Run had brought $975 at the auction, a price Ellen thought was considerably more than anyone would pay if they intended to have the horse shipped to Mexico for slaughter. Ellen, who said he spent more than eight hours at the sale trying to secure buyers for his five horses, was satisfied that all of them brought more than “kill buyers” would pay and be able to turn a profit by selling them by the pound.
The next morning, however, Jill Jensen, who does animal rescue work in Louisiana and monitors many livestock sales, posted on Facebook that Mula Run had been “Sold to kill buyer for $975. Obviously to be resold, little profit in meat. Coming to a kill pen near you soon. Lots of people outbid. But the kill buyer has the cash, thanks to kill pen bailing. Who can keep up?”
Mula Run wound up in the hands of Mike McBarron, who buys and sells horses and ships many of them to Mexico for slaughter. McBarron operates a Facebook page called the Kaufman Kill Pen that puts a price on some of the horses he's purchased to save them from going to a Mexican slaughterhouse. He calls it “bail.”
McBarron wanted $1,350 to spare Mula Run from that fate and posted a notice to that effect on the Kaufman Kill Pen Facebook page on the afternoon of Jan. 21.
Jensen's post, which named Sonny Ellen as the last known owner of Mula Run, was shared 226 times by Facebook accounts. The Kaufman Kill Pen post was shared 489 times.
Among those who saw the Facebook post was Sonny Ellen's granddaughter, who told her grandfather about it and wound up buying all five horses back.
The next day, Jan. 22, Willis informed Ellen of the decision by Sam Houston Race Park management to ban him. He said he called Sam Houston vice president Dwight Berube and director of racing Frank Hopf, asking for a hearing to tell his side of the story, and that both refused to give him that opportunity. “They told me, 'The decision has been made. There's nothing that can be done,'” Ellen said.
His next call was to attorney Scott Vastine of the Jackson Law Firm in Houston. “He managed to get us a hearing on Jan. 26,” Ellen said of Vastine.
Hopf attended the hearing, as did Donald Ahrens, the track's director of security. “I gave sworn testimony as to what happened,” Ellen said. “I had done nothing wrong.”
Three days later, Ellen said, he got a call from Ahrens, telling him, “The ban has been lifted and you're good to go.”
Ellen isn't happy about how the whole thing went down. He was hurt at some of the names people on Facebook were calling him.
“Everybody who knows me know I'm not an 'asshole' or 'slime bag,'” said Ellen, a Texas Thoroughbred Association life member since 1988.
“We initially believed the guy (Ellen) knew what he was doing,” said Ahrens. “The (Sam Houston Race Park) policy states selling 'directly' or 'indirectly' to slaughter makes someone subject to sanctions. We needed a sounder base for the decision and probably should have just put a hold on his entries while we looked into it.”
If track officials had investigated before taking action, they would have realized two of the horses Ellen sold – a mare and a filly – were offered with a 2018 breeding right to one of his stallions.
“That man was misled by the people who sold the horses for him,” McBarron said of Ellen. “He didn't know they were going to a kill pen.”
McBarron, who deals in a high volume of horses, shipping many of them off to slaughter, defended his business practice, which often finds him out-bidding rescue buyers so he can extract a higher price on his Facebook page. “Bottom line, if I want to lose $300 on a horse, I can,” he said. “Are these horses worth $975 to kill? No.”
McBarron blames what he calls the “tree huggers” and “animal lovers” for driving up the prices at auctions.
“They're trying to go to the auctions and outbid us,” he said. “Them and the fake kill-pen people who are only acting like they'll send a horse to slaughter.
“Bottom line,” he said, “everybody raises hell about horses going to slaughter, but it's been going on for 100 years. It didn't just start with Facebook. These people go crazy when a horse goes to a kill pen, but they ought to be glad someone like me is doing this. I'm not a bad guy. I'm at least giving the horses an opportunity.”
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