January 2017 | Racing Reform Snafu a Heavy Burden for Pennsylvania Horse Breeders
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Racing Reform Snafu a Heavy Burden for Pennsylvania Horse Breeders

Suzanne Bush - January 2017

Kate Goldenberg of Safe Haven FarmKate Goldenberg, owner of Safe Haven Farm in Perkasie, Bucks County, PA.

“I had a great horse for the first time, Saratoga Jack,” Kate Goldenberg says. “Of course, I get a great horse in a year they don’t pay me the money.”

She’s standing in a muddy lane between two pastures at her farm, Safe Haven Equine in Perkasie. “They think we’re sheiks,” she says, struggling to explain why Pennsylvania legislators took nine months to fix a critical flaw in racing reform legislation passed last February. While the legislation languished in Harrisburg, awaiting what turned out to be a simple fix, breeders’ awards were not distributed.

For nine months, many Pennsylvania breeders struggled to ensure their farms and their horses would survive the impasse. For nine months, Goldenberg had to depend on the generosity of other farmers—hay farmers, grain farmers—to keep her horses fed.

To the legislators, the issue was a clerical error they would eventually correct—just some words on paper. To small horse breeders like Goldenberg, it was a catastrophe.

The legislators, she believes, have a profoundly distorted perception of what life is like on farms like hers. The fencing is good enough “to hold the horses in,” she says, pointing to sagging posts and drooping wires. But they need repair. “One thing is that, I got part of my money in November.” But she needed it much earlier in the year for necessary repairs to her fences and elsewhere on the property.

Not knowing when or if the money would come added to her worries. “I have no idea what I’m dealing with. I can’t move. I certainly can’t call up the fence company,” she explains. “What I got (in November) was a good Band-Aid and it helped me pay the farmers.”

While she’s grateful for all the help she got from other farmers, she feels as if her worries compounded theirs. “Everybody that helps me is hungry. No one’s a millionaire who lives in a mansion or drives a Mercedes. These are hard-working people.” She pauses, reflecting on how a simple sentence in a law could create so much hardship. “Their risk level is weather and other things. Their other risk is they finally get their product in and they hand it to me and then I don’t pay. And I hadn’t paid their bill since January.”

Switching Gears

Goldenberg says that when the breeders’ awards were suspended, she had to figure out how to generate revenue so she could pay her bills. “At that point, I had to switch gears to survive. You get used to a certain level of income,” she says. “I like to pay my bills, and then, without warning, it stopped. Bam! So here I am, stuck, and I had to regroup.” She switched her business plan from racehorses to rescue horses.

“We have a lot less horses because of the breeders’ awards,” she says. “On the other hand, we have a lot of rescues. Where normally I carry three or four rescues at a time—constantly turning them over—now I have 10.” She gets horses from lots of sources, including former racehorses, and she prepares them for new careers. Several of the horses on her farm now will soon become part of the Philadelphia Police Department’s mounted division.

She has been rescuing horses for most of her life. “I actually started doing rescues with my ex-husband,” she explains. That was 45 years ago, when she and her husband had a horse named Windy Woman. “She wasn’t a great racehorse,” but she took the horse down to the racetrack. In time, Goldenberg became the go-to woman for people whose horses weren’t good at racing, but that needed something else to do. “And that’s how I learned to sell horses. If you want to help more, the ones you have, have to move on. They have to change their addresses. So back then that’s when we started the rescue.”

While it was easy to change her focus to rescuing horses when the breeders’ awards were suspended, a lot has changed in her life over the years. “The hard thing now is at 62, I’m really broken down,” she says. Independent and strong-willed, she is not used to relying on others for help running the farm. “I broke horses for a long time, and broke a lot of bones. So where I used to be able to do all that—I would get on them, school them—I would do everything. Now, I can’t.” She says that to get horses ready for new careers, they need to be schooled, trained, worked. It’s not as easy as it used to be for the woman who once broke horses, played polo and exercised race horses.

“It hurts me to stay on, so I’m relying on other people—and paying other people—to do what I used to do for free. So, that adds a whole new dynamic to getting the job done.” She had been taking care of the whole barn herself, mucking stalls, cleaning feed and water buckets, repairing gates and fencing. “And then I hurt my back. I thought I was having a heart attack. I went to the hospital and they said, ‘you know what? You’re a mess. You’re not having a heart attack, but you’re a mess.’”

She realized that she couldn’t do it all by herself. But with the uncertainty that suddenly became part of Pennsylvania racing this year, she worries. “So, do you quit? Or do you hire somebody and hope that if there’s not enough money, you know, that you can snap together enough pieces of the puzzle” to make things work.

“I’m Used to Dreaming”

Goldenberg says she has not given up on Pennsylvania’s horseracing industry, although she says she knows others who have. She says that they’ve moved their farms to New York or Maryland where the legislatures seem more committed to developing a robust breeding industry.

She wonders if Pennsylvania’s legislators realize how many smaller farms and individual businesses were hurt when problems in the wording of the reform legislation stalled payments to breeders. Veterinarians, farriers, exercise riders, hay and feed dealers, trainers—downstream victims of the nightmare Goldenberg faced.

“I’m a little nervous. But I was here for years hearing that slots were coming.  So it is kind of one of those situations where I’m used to dreaming. I’m used to tomorrow. I’m going to stick it out.” And as if to prove that she’s an optimist at heart, she says that she’s got some new potential on the farm.  “I’ve actually got another broodmare. She’s a rescue. When I pulled her paperwork up, I jumped out on a limb.” She also just sent another filly to South Carolina to be trained. “And that’s another big jump.

“You have to have faith and move forward.” She says she didn’t name her farm, but the way she runs her farm and her life makes the name it came with particularly apt. She has taken in stray dogs, horses in need of rescue and horses belonging to friends who are ill, even people who need someone to take care of them. “It was named Safe Haven by other people, not by me.”