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Ahead of the curve: Standardbred farm honored for dedication to horse welfare

AAEP 2008 President Dr. Eleanor Green, left, presents the 2008 Lavin Cup to Jim and Georgia Simpson at the AAEP's 54th annual convention in San Diego, Calif. on Dec. 9.

By Jennifer Autry

With the number of unwanted horses in the U.S. rising each year – recent estimates hover at 100,000 neglected equines – the burden now more than ever rests with breeders to ensure their horses avoid a trip to the slaughterhouse, or worse, lives of abuse and abandonment.

Hanover Shoe Farms, the world's leading and largest Standardbreed breeding and racing operation, not only carefully and responsibly manages their breeding operation, but has pledged that each horse – whether a Breeders Crown winner or retired broodmare – will always have a permanent home at the farm in Hanover, Pa.

For their commitment to excellence in horse welfare, Hanover received the 2008 Lavin Cup from the American Association of Equine Practitioners on Dec. 9 at the organization's 54th annual convention in San Diego, Calif. Each year, a non-veterinary individual or organization receives the award, named after former AAEP President A. Gary Lavin, for displaying outstanding care and compassion for horses.

Dr. John Hurtgen, an AAEP board member who operates Nandi Veterinary Associates in New Freedom, Pa., believes the farm captures the spirit of the Lavin Cup. "The example set by Hanover Shoe Farms has allowed many horse owners to examine the welfare of horses," Hurtgen said. "In other words, there is more to horse ownership than taking care of the animals while they are active and productive in their breeding, racing or show careers. The ‘unwanted horse' is a very big issue, and Hanover Shoe Farms has a good example of a successful program that others can emulate."

Retirement program

In an effort to reduce the unwanted horse population, Hanover retires broodmares over the age of 15 no longer considered "commercially interesting" for their breeding program. About 120 retired broodmares currently live on the farm, and each mare receives the same quality health care, nutrition and farrier attention as the active broodmares.

The AAEP praised Hanover for "being ahead of the curve," and Jim Simpson, president and CEO of the farm, said he has no intention of ever altering the current broodmare retirement program. "If we are ahead of the curve now, we just need to keep doing what we are doing," he said. "I'm not aware of any other farm doing a program on this scale with this many retired horses."

Considering the size and scope of the Hanover operation, caring for an additional 120 horses requires a substantial time and financial commitment, with about $100,000 in additional expenses required to properly care for the retired broodmares. Hanover consists of 27 farms comprised of 3,000 acres in Pennsylvania and Florida, 100 employees and about 1,200 horses at the peak of the season.

Even during the busiest time of the season, however, Simpson stressed that each retired broodmare is carefully checked twice a day. "The staff doesn't really pay attention to one horse over another," he said. "They all get the same quality of care. We know it is our duty to take care of 120 horses that aren't really economically helpful for us."

A history of excellence

As far as Simpson knows, the program of retiring broodmares has been in place for the entirety of the farm's 82-year history. Lawrence Sheppard, founder of the farm and arguably the most important figure in the history of harness racing, possessed a genuine love for Standardbreds and a vision to bolster the farm into the mammoth operation it has become today.

John F. Simpson Sr., Jim Simpson's father, joined forces with Sheppard in the 1940s, and the farm's success continued to grow exponentially. The farm has since produced eight Horses of the Year and remains the perennial leading breeder in North America, with winners of $24.6 million in 2007 alone. Today, the owners of the farm, Simpson, Russell Miller – Sheppard's grandson – and the Spears family, carry on the winning legacy established by the original pioneers of the Standardbred racing industry.

Decades ago, John F. Simpson Sr. set a high standard for the quality of broodmares at the farm, and the tradition continues today. "No breeding farm is going to reach the top, or remain on top, unless it consistently strives to improve its band of mares," he once said. Although it cost considerably less 30 years ago to maintain the best broodmare band in the world, Hanover refuses to compromise the quality of its mares.

In the last decade, the farm has reinvested $16,650,500 in the purchase of young, championship-caliber broodmares, and seen very positive results. Added to the broodmare band in 2003, Ambro Romance – winner of the 1998 Jugette Stakes, Matron Stakes and New Jersey Sire Stakes 3-year-old Filly Pace – has already produced two sub 1:50 performers for the farm. And, as promised, she will still live a life of luxury long after her days in the breeding shed are over.

Mighty Impressive, the matriarch of the retired mares at 33 years old, had a time trial mark of 1:56.3 taken in 1978 when she was a 3-year-old. Other retired mares in the band include $805,000 winner Saccharum and $545,000 winner Stardrift Hanover, both 26. The average age of the retired mares is 25, and there are 16 mares under the age of 20.

Beyond broodmares

Hanover's devotion to their retired horses also extends past the broodmare band. The most prominent retiree is 1991 Hambletonian winner Giant Victory, who recently retired from his career at stud in Italy. The stallion stood at Hanover's Pennsylvania and New York divisions before being leased to a farm in Italy, Williams explained to Harnesslink.

"He's still owned by Hanover Shoe Farms and Ted Gewertz and his wife, Claire," Williams said. "Ted and Claire agreed to share the cost of the quarantine and the shipping and they're contributing every year to his upkeep. For the people who owned him when he was racing to stay involved and be interested enough to look after him now is heartening. He's a lucky horse."

Adoption option

Eight to 10 Standardbreds a year are lucky enough to be adopted out to local farms in the Pennsylvania area. Although Hanover carefully screens the new homes, they allow approved owners to adopt the horse for free. "Most of these horses are 15 or 16 years old," Simpson said. "They still have a good 10 years left, so they are perfect to be adopted out for riding or driving a cart."

The adoption program is one small part of a greater philosophy woven throughout the entire history of Hanover Shoe Farms. A fourth-generation horse trainer, Simpson immersed himself in the Standardbred industry 40 years ago because of his love for the horses. Decades later, his devotion to his equine partners hasn't changed.

"The care of any of these horses will not be compromised under any circumstances," he said. "They've given us their reproductive lives, and we owe it to them to take care of them for the rest of their unproductive lives."

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