By Paul Moran
"New York breds; they start with an advantage."
That slogan was at one time used quite successfully in the promotion of what is the nation’s most-attractive incentive program for breeders and owners and remains true. Yet the stimulus, while highly successful in many respects, has too often failed in prompting the beneficiaries of some horses native to New York to raise their acceptance of responsibility for the welfare of the animals they own to a minimal level of common decency.
The reestablishment of legal horse slaughter in the United States appears to be a fait accompli in the wake of the recent abandonment of human decency by the legislative and executive branches of the federal government …
A provision attached to a spending bill that effectively removed a ban on the slaughter of horses for food, which sailed without meaningful opposition through Congress last month and was signed into law by President Barack Obama removes what was a de facto ban imposed by a law enacted in 2006 that prevented the U.S. Department of Agriculture from using federal funds to inspect meat processing plants that slaughter horses. Plants that are not inspected by the USDA cannot ship meat across state lines, thus lacking an outright prohibition, the provision effectively ended domestic horse slaughter. The reestablishment of legal horse slaughter in the United States appears to be a fait accompli in the wake of the recent abandonment of human decency by the legislative and executive branches of the federal government, which as in many areas of life in the United States over which they hold sway are successful only in making bad situations worse.
While American meat processors make plans to establish new facilities at which horses of all breeds and backgrounds will be slaughtered in the interest of supplying food to cultures which value equine species as a culinary delicacy, the grim business of supplying Canadian and Mexican slaughterhouses with castoff horses grinds on uninterrupted.
Various government studies show that about 138,000 American horses are sent to slaughter annually in Canada and Mexico, some 92 percent while in good health. Among these are many thoroughbreds foaled in New York, veterans of racing at Aqueduct, Belmont Park, Saratoga and Finger Lakes, all of which started with an advantage. Some, eventually, have been fortunate enough to escape those who would have seen them slaughtered for no reason greater than providing a meal for someone in Europe or Asia.
Most racehorses change hands, some often, during their lifetimes. The business of racing, claiming and breeding can take a horse anywhere on the planet, but it takes only one pair of the wrong hands to place an animal, many who have performed valiantly in service to their various owners, in jeopardy.
According to Deborah Jones, of Thoroughbred Identification, Protection and Advocacy, a New York-bred filly named Invasive, who ran her last race on Sept. 12, only two days before being found at an infamous Unadilla (NY) slaughter auction, was recently rescued only to face humane euthanasia due to a severe racing injury sustained during that race at Finger Lakes. "The filly’s connections were still running horses until the end of the meet despite our reporting to a Finger Lakes investigator and racing office," Jones said. "Both stated the track does have a zero tolerance policy against owners sending their horses to slaughter albeit verbal."
The feigned, disingenuous concern of Finger Lakes officials is perhaps more contemptible than her last owner, trainer Glenroy Brown, sending an injured horse immediately to a slaughter auction.
Invasive was still wearing racing plates when found at a sale by Colleen Segura, whose Equine Rescue and Research in Pine Bush, N.Y. has for years combed the kill sales for thoroughbreds in need of rescue. Unfortunately, she is overwhelmingly busy, has nine rescue horses at her farm, which is full, and finds her efforts and those of other fellow advocates buffeted continually by the headwinds stirred by want of financial and human support. Quite simply, more thoroughbreds are in the slaughter pipeline than the network of rescuers is able to save.
"I’m the one who goes to the auctions and finds the horses — and there are thoroughbreds there every week," Segura said. "But we don’t have the financial support to rent another farm or buy a farm. Some people, former owners of these horses, help, but many more don’t. It’s frustrating to go to a sale and look at these horses, pet them and then say, I can’t help them. It’s hard. I’d love to go to an auction and be able to say, there are no thoroughbreds here this week. But that never happens and there’s no support. So many times we’re picking up the pieces."
Stability, a Florida-bred gelding who last raced on Sept. 30 at Finger Lakes, was rescued from a Canadian contract kill buyer at the same auction, Jones said, and though sound and safe is currently without support from her breeder, Donald R. Dizney, or former owners, the last of which, trainer Sal Iorio Jr., has not been banned by Finger Lakes officials. He also races at New York Racing Association tracks. The NYRA has a zero-tolerance policy on slaughter. The 10-year-old Stability started 76 times and won 15 races. He earned more consideration than he received from Iorio, who should soon find himself confronted by officials of NYRA and racing elsewhere if anywhere.
Largely due to the efforts of Debra Cedeno and others, 10-year-old New York-bred mare My Nina Rose, who last started on the final day of the 2009 Saratoga meeting — her 60th career start — was spared slaughter last week. While there is no record of what happened to this mare over the course of two years, My Nina Rose was saved from a kill buyer in Pennsylvania last week for $600. Once she completes 30 day quarantine in Pennsylvania she will retire to Akindale Farm in upstate New York, which is home to many rescued thoroughbreds.
The rescue of My Nina Rose, Cedeno said, was facilitated by her former trainer, Gary Sciacca, and radio host Steve Byk, who bought her from the sale, raising the bid beyond the range of a kill buyer. "It meant everything that Gary came up above and beyond," said Cedeno, whose husband, trainer Heriberto Cedeno, has long been a fixture on the NYRA circuit. "I saw pictures of her after the sale. She was thin and had really bad feet, but she looked wonderful. Horses have bought our houses, paid for our cars and send our children to college. This is the least we can do."
The New Holland sale in Pennsylvania, from which My Nina Rose was saved, is infamous in rescue circles.
According to Jones, New York-bred bred Mighty Irish also found at New Holland three weeks ago and thanks to her former connections arrived back in New York this week. The 6-year-old mare, winner of four races from 40 career starts, last raced at Finger Lakes on Oct. 18 for owner Randi Persaud, who often races horses at NYRA-operated tracks.
The 5-year-old New York-bred Staten Island Gal raced for the last time on Oct. 26 at Laurel in the colors of owner Carlos Vasquez before being sent to New Holland, where she was purchased early this week by a kill buyer, Jones said. "She is still languishing in the slaughter pipeline. Without support from her previous connections and a safe place to land we fear it could be too late for this filly."
Small Mid-Atlantic tracks have always been fertile ground for those who deal in edible horseflesh and New York-bred gelding Potomac Moon, who last raced on Aug. 5 at Charles Town beneath the colors of Manuel Gomez, was also found recently at New Holland and is now with a dealer who is willing to sell the gelding but, Jones said, "… again without funds and a safe place for him to land he also remains at risk."
Said Jones: "The list is endless and includes a stakes winning broodmare who foaled a filly by Big Brown last year and her Two Punch 2011 weanling just sold through Fasig-Tipton. Thankfully her breeder (Arthur Hancock III) did bring her to safety but shame on Lehr Jackson of Corbett Farm, in Maryland, who dumped the mare with a Pennsylvania dealer two weeks after she weaned her foal."
For those involved in the thankless, never-ending effort to save the magnificent animals who have stood alongside humans at every stage of an intimately shared history, who recognize the importance of this work and the enormity of this bond, a relationship of which those currently in the Congress of the United States and the White House are profoundly ignorant, the sheer volume of horses at dire risk is overwhelming.
Those climbing this seemingly insurmountable incline share an appreciation of the timeless relationship between human and horse that spans the entire evolutionary spectrum. At this point, all things considered, one wonders which specie is more evolved.
Thousands of years before there was such a thing as racing, horses were given places alongside the gods of Greek mythology. Poseidon, god of the sea, struck the ground with a trident and, according to myth, a splendid white stallion appeared. Poseidon then explained to the assembled gods, the various uses of this strange new creature, particularly as an instrument of war.
The horse’s partnership with humans was forged, according to Aesop, the author of fables, in a dispute between a horse and stag that grazed together in a lush pasture until the stag, using his sharp antlers, drove the horse away. More grass for him. By chance, the evicted and by then hungry horse encountered a man of whom he begged help in reclaiming his place in the pasture. In return, legend says, the horse vowed to help the human, who returned with a bridle, mounted the horse and with a spear drove the stag from the pasture. Delighted, the horse requested that the man remove the bit so that he might return to grazing. The human, however, stricken by the sudden realization of what the horse had to offer, refused and so the fate of man and beast were forever entwined.
Pegasus, the winged, white, immortal horse of Greek mythology, an enduring modern symbol of unconquerable equine spirit, was created by Poseidon from drops of blood spattered from the severed head of the Gorgon Medusa. Apollo and the nine muses rode him often.
The Greeks raised anthropomorphic symbolism to levels unique in both history and myth. The Centaur, a wine-drinking warrior creature of great wisdom, was half human, half equine. Centaurs, some of which were immortal, educated the deities and mortals central to Greek legend, taught medicine and founded astronomy. Hercules himself was educated by a Centaur, Chiron, a son of Kronos, the Titan god, and was raised by Apollon, god of wisdom, poetry, music, and brother of, Artemis, mistress of animals.
While Greek myth and fable are the products of pseudomensia (the memory of things that never happened), the supposed reality of the horse in antiquity is equally bizarre and illustrative of the human bond taken to anther realm.
Gaius Caligula, the most depraved of the decadent Roman emperors, bestowed citizenship upon his prized chariot horse, Incitatus, a steed for which the despotic and profoundly corrupt ruler of what was then the known world had ordered a gem-studded collar, which was worn beneath a purple blanket, the royal color. It is written that the horse, bejeweled and in full ceremonial regalia, was led into the Roman Senate and given by his devoted master the rank of Consul.
The oats fed to Incitatus were dipped in gold and eighteen servants manned his marble stable. In a spasm of fervor, perhaps in response to a particularly admirable effort one afternoon at the Circus Maximus, his diligent work in the Senate or just because the emperor was feeling particularly benevolent that day, Caligula promoted Incitatus to priest and held a sumptuous banquet to mark the occasion. Roman senators arrived to find Incitatus sitting on his haunches, bedecked in jewels, mostly pearls, of which Caligula was said to be quite fond. When a platter of chicken was presented to the horse, the story goes, Incitatus spooked, upset the table and sent Caligula’s guests scrambling for cover.
After declaring himself a god, an unfortunate misjudgment, Caligula was eventually assassinated and Incitatus was demoted back to horse, but the pattern of behavior — human detachment from reality in the presence of a superior or simply beloved equine — is common at every point of history.
In the centuries between the fall of the Roman Empire and 2011, horses have stood beside humans in peace, war and the building of nations, including the one whose leadership has just abandoned them.
To this day, every thoroughbred born carries the fragile dream of a human who sees in the first uncertain steps of a new foal boundless possibility that stretches the most fertile imagination. At birth, every thoroughbred is the next Secretariat or Zenyatta. This juxtaposed with the grim reality of a horse like Invasive — a New York-bred whose advantage long ago dissolved, and countless thousands like her — standing on an injured knee still wearing racing plates offered to those interested only in killing her less than 24 hours after leaving a backwater racetrack is incongruous, unspeakably inhumane and should be criminal. But soon, it will again be legal in the United States of America to slaughter these proud, noble, generous and courageous animals so they might suffer in unimaginable terror only to be eaten by someone in Paris or Tokyo. Fortunately, among Americans, live many concerned, humane and selfless individuals dedicated to solving this unfortunate problem, which begins and will end only with humans.
"Our organization has been advocating for a percentage of the gross purse money to fund racehorse retirement and rehabilitation since 2004," said Marlene Murray, of R.A.C.E. Fund in Harrisburg, Pa. "We have also educated many horsemen about the horrific journey to slaughter and its brutality and cruelty. A percentage of the gross purse money at every racetrack that conducts live racing plus substantial contributions from racetrack management and mandatory fees for breeders would fund racehorse retirement. Thoroughbreds need to go directly from the track to a safe facility when their racing careers have ended. Owners who have the resources and facilities to retire their own should do so.
"The thoroughbred racing industry can no longer bury its head in the sand about this issue and its responsibility. There are still far too many thoroughbreds ending up in kill pens across America. It is an injustice to the horses and a disgrace to the industry."
"This," said Segura, speaking for the many tireless advocates who share her passion in a chorus that is not sufficiently loud and too often ignored by those with the power to bring meaningful change, "has got to stop."