Thoroughbred Aftercare: A New Legacy for Barbaro?

by | 01.30.2012 | 11:06am

It's been five years since the passing of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, whose only career defeat in seven starts came when he fractured his right hind leg and he was pulled up shortly after the start of the Preakness on May 20, 2006.

Though surgery repaired the badly damaged leg, Barbaro's death seemed like a fait accompli after the son of Dynaformer was struck by laminitis on his left hind leg in early July. That he lived nearly seven more months is a tribute to both his indelible spirit and courage and the advancements in veterinary science that amazed the world almost from the moment he arrived at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa.

But here we are five years later, and veterinarians and researchers seem no closer to understanding how to beat laminitis than New Bolton vet Dean Richardson and his team did five years ago. Last month the American Association of Equine Practitioners, in announcing a $1-million fund-raising goal for the Laminitis Research Project, said the complex, painful foot and circulation disease “remains one of the most frustrating medical mysteries for equine veterinarians.”

Barbaro's injury and struggle to survive did more than showcase how far veterinary science has come or remind us that the need to support equine research is still very much there. Barbaro, his trainer Michael Matz recently told the Baltimore Sun, “brought racing together more than anyone had done in a long time.”

That he did, but I'm afraid the spirit that brought so many people together in their shared love of the horse has disintegrated. As we argue over regulations, animal welfare issues, medication, and takeout, some have lost sight of the one thing that unites so many of us: our love of the Thoroughbred.

The days immediately following the Preakness, though painful for those closest to Barbaro (Matz and his stable staff, owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, and jockey Edgar Prado), were strangely uplifting to me, and perhaps to others. The outpouring of compassion for Barbaro and his struggle –  from hardened horseplayers, animal lovers of all ages, and a national news media that seldom shows any interest in racing – helped reinforce the belief for many of us that we were involved in something that, at its core, was decent and humane.

Yes, I believe Barbaro did all that. He was our sport's rallying cry for, to borrow the phrase from Barbaro chronicler Alex Brown's book title, “greatness and goodness.” Those qualities have been elusive in recent years as the industry struggles both economically and with its very own identity.

Who, or what, is there to rally around today? Too often, it's a dollar sign, a number, or an issue that has more to do with the people or economics of racing than the animal. Whatever happened to the phrase, “If you do right by the horse, the horse will do right by you?”

On Friday, I suggested that time is running out for the industry to act on the long-neglected issue of Thoroughbred aftercare. On almost a weekly basis, our industry is being smeared, deservedly or not, by heartless cruelty to horses by what I can only say are evil people.

The new world of instant communications and social networking spreads these stories like a fast-moving virus, and whether or not the Thoroughbred industry is at fault, all of us are cast in a shadow. Thoroughbred racing is, like it or not, a poster child for the equine world. The lack of response to animal welfare crises from the Thoroughbred industry, borne out of resistance to collaboration or centralization, only makes these matters worse. Our image is getting killed, because people everywhere love horses, and the message we are sending them is, “We don't really care.”

Can Thoroughbred industry leaders stop the abuse of horses or provide for every unwanted equine for the rest of its life? Of course not. But it would be reassuring for the industry to have a program that says, “We are doing everything we can.”

Now that would be a great legacy for Barbaro.

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  • David

    A wonder project, a perfect tribute.  You know, much of the funding is already out there ripe for channeling into such a worthwhile cause.   Support dollars directed to so many overlapping organizations, special interest groups and lobby expenditures could go a long way in helping science solve this and other industry problems.  If BARBARO could be a catalyst for common sense initiatives, prioritizing effort and unselfishness, he would take a spot on this industry’s Mount Rushmore.

  • hoofandpick

    I am totally disgusted with the racing industry.  They turn a blind eye to the legalized animal cruelty and other egregious activities ie injection of illegal drugs into race horses or inject them with drugs too close to an upcoming race which is illegal as Dutrow did, no accountability for a fully 30% of race horse deaths during morning workouts, the number of catastrophic breakdowns on tracks during a race, sending horses to slaughter on the backside of the track either openly or surreptitiously, masking pain with anti-inflammatory drugs and continuing to allows these horses to race, heel nerving horses to block any pain sensation which can lead to a catastrophic injury because the animal feels nothing in the area the severed nerve innervated, insensitive and heartless comments like the Woodbine trainer said “He might be on my dinner plate by December” (http://canadianhorsedefencecoa… and finally the propaganda regarding their so-called aftercare program which is a complete and utter joke.  The sad truth is that NO ONE in the leadership has the backbone/guts/intestinal fortitude to overhaul the industry and clean house MEANING getting rid of all of those owners and trainers who abuse and are cruel to their horses, including those that knowingly or unknowingly sell their horses to slaughter.   What is extremely disturbing is that this is not rocket science and all that needs to be done is to collect a small amount of money from every purse that a horse wins at every track in the country and use this money to open sanctuaries for horses whose racing careers are over.  I am sure that if the leaders in the industry were to overhaul every track by eliminating race day drugs, only allowing trainers/owners who CARE about their horses to race their horses at all of the tracks, holding vets, owners and trainers accountable for illegal activities and by showing the public that their measure of caring for the horses is by sponsoring and supporting REAL aftercare programs/sanctuaries where horses whose racing careers are over are brought to and cared for, the public will respond positively.  Until the leadership acts by showing the public that they really care about the welfare of the horses who literally put food on the tables of those who are in the industry, the public will continue to publicly and privately criticize the industry.

  • Caroline

    I don’t think you can disconnect argument about regulation, animal welfare, medication, and the economics of racing from the aftercare issue. It is the system (drug use, failure to penalize drug abuse, running injured horses, and an unprofitable economic system of funding) which systematically fails the “no longer viable” thoroughbred in finding humane and well supported retirement. And you can bet that the failed economics of the industry will continue to be used as an excuse to fail the horse.

  • David

    Unfortunately have to throw in with you.  Moreover, over supply of races has been a big contributor to the problem.  Horsemen lobbies and political consideration (i.e. minimum threshold of racing in exchange for alternative gaming franchisees/subsidies) translate to far more races than demand can absorb with ill-advised breeding only aggravating the after-race issue.  To your point we should be more willing to walk the walk as well as talk.

  • ThoroughbredWriter

    Rock on, Ray.  You have a good heart, and an eloquent pen.  Thank you for speaking out–I’m on-board, sign me up.

  • Glimmerglass

    If Barbaro [by living nearly seven more months] “… is a tribute to both his
    indelible spirit and courage and the advancements in veterinary science
    that amazed the world ..”, then it begs the question what does Hoist the Flag’s almost identical injury in 1971 and pronounced successful recovery mean? Has equine science actually regressed in the decades in between?  Or has the modern race horses’ fragility become a growing medical challenge in its own right compared runners just a few generation ago.

  • Carlson1608

    That’s putting alot of pressure on a dead horse, if you ask me. Barbaro has done more in death, that any horse in history. He leaves a beautiful legacy behind. He is also the horse by which I measure all racehorses…


  • Gfpowell

    Excellent article and responses. Recently, the facts tell us that PA wagering is taking in MILLIONS and just down the street is the infamous New Holland Horse Auction selling TB’s to kill buyers who transport them to the slaughterhouse in Quebec, Canada. The very TB’s that contributed to that wagering figure. The NYWA has been cited during an audit for retaining an additional 1% from the wagering public amounting to 6 MILLION in 6 months and NOT ONE DIME was contributed to TB aftercare. We have many TB horse rescue groups financially struggling with TB overload and little financing. They are dependent on private donations mostly while our industry brings millions into the wagering windows. Thisoney is made on the backs of our TB’s, on their bones, tendons/ligaments and their very souls.

  • Barb3000

    Another thing that tells me that the racing industry does not care one thing about the horses lives is because they hire lobbying groups like the Alpine Group, Inc that is being paid $50,000 to stop both anti-slaughter bills H.R. 2966 and S.1176 hired by none other than the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.  And another person the has been hired by slaughter outfit Beltex a Marshall Brachman is being paid $ 9000.00 to do the same. This is just the tip of  the iceberg. If the racing industry is so honest and caring why do they want to work against keeping the racehorse out of the slaughter pipeline???? You would think they would be trying to keep the horses out of cruelty like that. There is lots of money being slipped to politicians to never allow either bill to ever be passed.  The over breeders have always had the option to send their breeding stock, brood mares, to slaughter if they become to old to keep up cranking out a foal every year like a factory assembly line.  They simply replace them. They don’t care what happens to horses that have served them for years and are thrown on the trash heap. They never bother to try find homes fro these throw-away-horses.  This another group that lobbies against the anti-slaughter bills. It’s all about money and nothing else.


  • JC

    “But it would be reassuring for the industry to have a program that says, ‘We are doing everything we can.'”

    Not only “reassuring”, it would be DECENT.

    I am stunned that people not only don’t care how it IS, they don’t even care how it LOOKS.  When you make millions off a THING, any THING, and operate under a philosophy of “use and discard”, that makes you a lot of things yourself, possibly misers and opportunists for starters.  And, in this case, the original, money-generating THING is a living, feeling, breathing animal that deserves better.  What is so difficult about using some of that money to care for animals after they’ve done their duty by YOU?  What, you don’t have to *owe them* because they’re not(allegedly) as smart or as rich and entitled as you?

    Well, keep it up.  The stories aren’t going away, and neither are the internet and the big mouths willing to tell them.  And if it IS bad, you will LOOK bad.  Reality always bites; now or later… 

    Meanwhile, huge prayers for equine welfare everywhere…

  • Highgunner

    In the past, we trained horses to be
    winners in any career not racehorses that need to be rescued.
    Historically, our horses ran more races and were also well sought
    after for second careers. What has happened in the interim. David
    and Caroline comments above do a great job of encapsulating many of
    the factors leading to our current industry status. There are other
    factors, such as urbanization, that has robbed us of new generations
    of thoroughbred horsemen and owners. We must look to the past to have
    a better understanding of our real thoroughbred culture that produced
    versatile athletes that that did not need retraining. We also must
    recognize the very skeptical public will judge us by our deeds, not
    our words: we must be able to prove by the numbers, that we care. A
    national database that tracks our horses from birth to death (as
    proposed by others such as Graham Motion) is an important milestone
    for our industry. As a very successful business man told me after
    hearing, in disbelief, that the industry does not track it’s horses
    post racing: “They either don’t care or don’t want to know, and I
    am not sure which one is worse”. Many of us do care, but our
    inaction is perceived by the general public as an endorsement in the
    status quo in racing.

    @Highgunner – The Voice for the “Unwanted Thoroughbred”

  • Most don’t want to know

  • Newsy4444

    True, thank you. Accountability and transparency are the anti-bacterial hand wash this needs to not be a joke.

    Speaking of history.. this segues to…  if a comprehensive plan gets going, the money will be an attractive nuisance. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, we should think about where the money goes.

    These horses have earned a real, professional 2nd or 3rd career. They are not a  cash crop like lettuce. Thank you for illuminating the world of possibilities.

  • Rachel

    At least we understand at least a little the complexities that led to Barbaro’s laminitis…what is more troubling is what led to Secretariat dying from it? Or poor, poor Foolish Pleasure, poor darling.. all four feet crippled with it…who was it we just lost last week? How does a valuable, retired stallion develop founder?

  • Otis

    Slaughter is such a profound betrayal.  No other animal is asked by us to do the things horses do.  They go to war for us, race for us, entertain us in many ways, transport us, and ponies babysit children.  The list is much longer than this.  No other creature is so carefully cared for and asked for their trust in so may ways.  And they give. 

    Right here, right now, this is a Thoroughbred issue.  We are the most prominent group and should set the standard.

    As English/Americans, we do not have a “polite” term for horses as food.  Cow = beef, Pig = pork, Sheep = mutton.  Even the Chicken gets to be poultry.  

    Here is hoping that all those who speak on these blogs can have an impact.

    Thanks, Ray.

  • Rachel

    They are police officers…search and rescue…border patrol
    Plowed the fields and then took the family to church in the buggy…
    Carried thousands of passengers in stagecoaches….delivered the mail for the Pony Express…
    Carried their partner into battle…and then carried out the wounded and dead.

  • Gfpowell

    We all know that certain segments in the race industry deliberately ignore the reality especially people in power who could change things for the better. We have big name trainers that virtually clam up about the issue instead of using their notoriety to speak out about the issue and I find their silence disgraceful. I know my career as a trainer has been deliberately blocked because I’m outspoken on this issue and other issues, but it is all coming back to haunt them now. What owner would want me to train for them or be associated with me knowing that they are in jeopardy? Well, I can’t just sit back and watch what is happening without saying something. Many positive changes in our society happened because people spoke out about it. The racing industry must donate 1% from wagering to registered TB horse rescue groups.

  • Jo Anne Normile

    Thank you, Caroline, for speaking the truth. (sort by best rating to find her quote as I’m having trouble getting this to post after her remark.

    I am reminded of the movie “A Few Good Men” and Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson’s famous exchange:
    C: “I want the truth”  
    N: “You can’t handle the truth!” 
    C: “Did you order the code red?” 
    N: “You’re gxx dxxx right I did!”
    Many of us know those organizations, tracks, agencies, associations, commissions, individual trainers, owners, breeders, veterinarians and others in racing who still hide the “code reds” and sordid truths of the system.  They have supported the “code reds” for decades failing to realize that we have learned the truth and we refuse to allow ourselves or the gallant racehorses to “handle it” their way any longer.

  • JC

    And died themselves…

  • JC

    I’m no journalist, just a fan and observer, but it might change, too, when a journalist with some serious guts and nothing to lose writes the article about any big name trainers sending horses to auction.  And frankly, I feel for some of the trainers being put in the middle.  I am not massively familiar with all the goings-on in this industry but it seems to me that, when the trainer can do no more for the horse in either racing or success, the true responsibility for the horse’s retirement is the owner’s.  Anyone with more knowledge/experience here feel free to correct me…

  • Jo Anne Normile

    Trainer/owner relationships in racing are unique. Trainers have nearly total control of the “investment” of their owners and their owners are generally NOT consulted about what vet to use on the track nor what medications to give or type of racing plates (some dangerous) their “investment” wears.  Frequently, they are not even advised of injuries.    In fact, most owners could not identify their bay Thoroughbred from 12 others unless pointed out to them so they trust their trainer to care for their horse at the end. 

    Sometimes when owners no longer like paying $60 a day for training for a horse not making a dime, they often tell the trainer: “Please just find a good home because as of today,  I’m not paying another dime to you for this horse”.  The trainer is now losing a LOT per day with a stall without a horse to train and the trainer is more than happy to tell the owner they found a “great home” as they pocket their blood money from the ONSITE LICENSED racing trainer and well known kill buyer.  The trainer quickly empties the stall and finds another great prospect for his owner so the day training rate can resume.  The owner believes the person he is paying so much money to and entrusting his investments to actually believes their injured horse is living happily for free at one of the thousands of farms that need “pasture ornaments”. 
    At cheap tracks and in cheap claiming races (ahh, let’s count how many!!) it is more common for the owner to ALSO BE the TRAINER (or a drinking buddy) so the same person is responsible.  Freedom to do whatever you want.  Pay to euthanize an injured horse, take time to see if the track’s aftercare program will pick it up right away so they can bring another horse in (yeah, right!), or gee, put a person or two in between themselves and the kill buyer and make some money on the slow or injured, ill -conditioned or improperly fed horse.

     But read on lest you think I am picking on trainers!!

    Being involved with breeding, racing and utimately racehorse rescue, there were plenty of cases where the trainers were attached to the horses but I was told their OWNERS were demanding that they get SOME money out of that nag that cost them so much and got itself injured so the rescue has to match the meat price right on the backstretch barn area of the track and get the offending horse out of there or watch the horse go to TA DA — the licensed onsite racing trainer kill buyer.  The owner is right there wearing their diamond rings and gold chains demanding MORE from the rescue than the onsite kill buyer will pay!   There is enough irresponsibility to spread around and we haven’t even started on the organizations and entities that make money due to the efficiency of the slaughter pipeline such as the tracks that have their hand out to grab their percent of money wagered on any horse that raced or died trying too.

    Very good question and I wish I had space to tell you the real stories of real people and the horses that paid the price.

  • Steeplestakes

    Excellent story – I agree 100%.

  • Bellwether


  • TBDancer

    I follow TBFriends, the website (add “dot com”) and the Facebook page. Joe Shelton runs the rescue and he does a marvelous job. He too writes eloquently of the plight of abandoned horses. His entries are not archived on the website, but you can catch them on the Fb page. Today’s entry (2/1/12) is particularly fitting for this topic because horses do not “fall through the cracks.” As he says, all it takes is a phone call or two to find somewhere for the unwanted horse to go. Someone just needs to pick up the phone.

    My 18 y.o. OTTB found a home with me July 31, 1998, and while it took him a few days to figure out “that lady in the white SUV is coming to see ME every morning,” once he got that concept, he’s been great.

    He wasn’t a big star on the track or anything, though he did win a bit and earned his keep for awhile. He was rescued and retrained and given a chance at a second career by someone (or two) and now he’s mine. EVERY horse deserves the same opportunity.

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