April, it turns out, is not the cruelest month if you happen to be a race horse on the verge of retirement. That's because in late March the owners of Penn National Race Course in Grantville, PA announced a new policy regarding the fates of race horses that can no longer race. Christopher McErlean, Vice President/Racing for Penn National Gaming, the company that operates the Grantville race track, says the policy has been in the works for some time. "Essentially, if we are given credible information regarding horses that are sold for purposes of slaughter, then we have the right to take actions against the individuals—trainer/owner of the horse—if they have stabling privileges at our tracks." The punitive actions can range from revoking stall privileges at the race track, to actually barring individuals from all of the company's racing properties.
Penn National Gaming, Inc. will hold owners and trainers of horses accountable for conducting "proper due diligence on those buying horses." Additionally, track management is urging horsemen throughout the racing industry to step up efforts to ensure the humane treatment of horses that are no longer capable of racing.
The company is the largest pari-mutuel operator in North America, with race tracks in Maine, New Mexico, Ohio and West Virginia. McErlean says that the policy, which took effect immediately, serves a couple of important purposes. "Part of it is to raise the awareness and hopefully to put a little more accountability on the individuals who own and take care of the horses." He says that he is looking forward to the policy turning into a formal retirement program under the guidance of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA).
Creating a Workable Plan
Stephanie Beattie, President of the Pennsylvania HBPA, says that she is hoping to have a retirement facility up and running by this fall. "We've been talking about this for a while at Penn National," Beattie says. "Everybody knows we need something, but we need something that works." She says she has been looking at organizations that operate race horse retirement programs, as a prelude to putting the plan together for Penn National. In her research, she found New Vocations, which has been in operation since 1992.
Beattie spent some time at the New Vocations farm in Lexington, KY, in preparation for finalizing choices for facilities to serve the Penn National program. She is considering a couple of farms located within a half hour or closer to Penn National Race Course. "We have to have the right property, and we know the startup costs," she explains. "We already have some donors to get started, and we're also asking Penn National management for a donation."
Beattie says that, to begin, Penn National's program will be somewhat different than Turning for Home, Philadelphia Park's retirement program. "We've talked about maybe down the road doing something like the purse fund that Philadelphia Park has. But we're going to start out with HBPA funds, Penn National Management and private donors. We don't want to go and collect a fee until we can show that the program can work," she says. At Philadelphia Park, trainers contribute $10 per race per horse and jockeys contribute $5 for each win. This funding stream is in addition to the $100,000 that came from Philadelphia Park and the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (PTHA) to start the program.
The Object is Compassion
Despite differences in funding, Penn National's program will be focused on the same objectives as Turning for Home. Beattie says that they'll evaluate every horse, identify what they are capable of, and then put them into an appropriate training program. Additionally, they will maintain contact with those who adopt the horses, to ensure that each horse's new career is fulfilling and humane. She says that to achieve their goals, they will need at least two farms, one for training horses that are physically sound and another for horses that need rehabilitation.
Although the HBPA will create the program, New Vocations will run it, and it will be called New Vocations and become part of the organization's network. "Anna Ford (New Vocations Adoptions Manager) is actually coming up in May to make a presentation to the HBPA board, and she's going to go around and look at the farms with me. We're just going to be the funding mechanism for her. She's going to be running it."
Beattie expects that they'll eventually be handling about 200 horses a year, and estimates they'll be able to sustain the New Vocations turnaround rate of 60 days for horses entering the program. New Vocations has a highly-regarded track record and a success rate that matches what Beattie wants for Penn National. She says that other retirement programs had been considered, but she felt that none could handle the capacity that New Vocations can.
Penn National Management and HBPA share a desire to ensure a good life for the horses that have served everyone so well. "It is a fairness thing," Beattie says. "These horses are out there for our enjoyment and livelihood, and they deserve a good retirement. Management, owners, trainers, jockeys all make a living off these horses and everyone should be concerned about what happens to these horses after they're finished racing."