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How to Avoid the Dog Food Factory

An Alternative for Thoroughbreds Past Their Prime

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Seattle Slew spent his retirement as a stud, regularly mounting mares for breeders who hoped he'd sire another Triple Crown winner. Cigar, who tied the world record with a 16-race winning streak in 1995 and '96, lives in a pasture at the Kentucky Horse Park, where fans send him carrots through the mail and stop by to take his picture. But horses who never make the front page of the Daily Racing Form also deserve a happy life when they're too old to race.

Golden Bound, a six-year-old bay stallion who happens to be one of Seattle Slew's many grandsons, ran his last race on October 4. He ran hard--as he always had--and halfway through the six furlongs he held the lead. But the rest of the field rushed up on him, and he couldn't keep pace. He finished eighth.

Like many veteran athletes, Golden Bound has a chronic ailment--a mildly arthritic ankle. When he returned to the barn his trainer, Liane Davis, decided it was time for him to "go home," to lead a less strenuous life away from the racetrack.

Golden Bound had already sunk to running in $4,000 claiming races, the least competitive events in Chicago. Davis could have sold him to another trainer, who would have taken him to a leaky-roof track like Great Lakes Downs or Fairmount Park and run him for $2,500. But she'd seen horses raced until they suffered a fracture and had to be put down. She didn't want that to happen to Golden Bound. When he was healthy he was one of the best horses she'd ever trained, and he'd won her more than $50,000. He didn't owe her anything. She owed him.

"A couple of years ago when I was at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, this horse came out of the paddock," Davis says. "I said, 'He's beautiful.' I found out he was an Illinois bred. So I called one of my owners, and he agreed to buy the horse."

As an Illinois bred, Golden Bound was eligible to run in races limited to horses from our state. The competition is weaker--only one Illinoisan, Dust Commander, has ever won a Kentucky Derby--but the purses are bigger, because the tracks want to promote the state's breeding industry. Davis sent Golden Bound to Sportsman's Park, where he clobbered the local horses. He won his first race, and then "he came back three weeks later and won again--led every jump of the way."

Thrilled by her discovery, Davis entered Golden Bound in a $75,000 stakes race at Arlington Park. He didn't win, but he ran respectably. That same year his trouble started. It didn't happen on the racetrack. It happened in his stall, during Arlington's Fourth of July fireworks.

Horses are "fright and flight" animals--they react to danger signals by running away. Golden Bound was terrified by the explosions overhead, but he couldn't run. So he threw himself to the floor of his stall and kicked the walls in a mad panic. He cracked a bone in his right rear leg.

After eight months of surgery and rehabilitation Golden Bound returned to the racetrack, but he wasn't the same horse. He still won a few races, but they were claiming races at smaller midwestern tracks--Hawthorne, Ellis Park in Kentucky, Hoosier Park in Indiana. He was also starting to develop arthritis in his left ankle.

Davis knew she had to retire him: he ran his heart out every time he heard the starter's bell, so he was liable to hurt himself badly. "The problems he has are totally livable for a horse to be ridden every day," she says. "But the nature of the sport and his size and his determination make it possible that he could suffer an injury that could end his life. He likes to be on the front. He's the kind of horse who, if he broke down, he'd try to keep running. I'm not going to send him to 'Hoboken Downs.'"

Neither was she going to sell him to the "killers," the slaughterhouse agents who offer around $300 a horse. She thought he could still make a good dressage horse, or a jumper, or a sire for show horses. "He has beautiful conformation," she says. So she called the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses, an organization that finds homes for retired Thoroughbreds. CANTER immediately posted this classified ad on its Web site (canterusa.org/Illinois): "6 year old bay stallion, grandson of Seattle Slew. 16.2+ hands. Golden Bound is a drop-dead gorgeous bay with a beautiful white blaze and sculpted profile....Golden Bound likes people, especially those with peppermints! $3500."

Similar ads have found homes for nearly 350 horses since CANTER was founded three years ago, says Denise Fillo, a Carol Stream racing fan who heads the Chicago-area chapter. Fillo--who once worked at Belmont Park as a "hotwalker," leading horses around the paddock before a race--owns one herself: Slewrey, another descendant of Seattle Slew. Slewrey was never a great racehorse, but he's now living out his life as a trail rider.

"Everybody has different talents," says Fillo. "Some of these horses, their talent is in the second career. We had one in Ohio who became a police horse. We showed it to the trainer, and he said, 'Wow, I didn't think that loser could do anything.'"

CANTER is also interested in saving losers from becoming horse meat. Over half the Thoroughbreds born in North America never win a race. Some of them have to be put down because they're lame or ill, but CANTER doesn't believe they should be slaughtered because they're slow.

Slaughtering horses for human consumption in Europe and Asia has been a big issue this year. Over the summer Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby--whose stud services turned out to be less studly than his owners had hoped--met his end in a Japanese slaughterhouse. Then a De Kalb slaughterhouse owned by Cavel International, a Belgian horse-meat exporter, burned to the ground. It was one of three such facilities left in the United States. As Cavel rebuilt, state representative Robert Molaro, a Democrat from Chicago, introduced a bill banning the slaughter of horses in Illinois for human consumption. CANTER members lobbied for the bill, and it was on the verge of passing in the fall veto session. Then the chief Republican opponent, representative David Wirsig of Sycamore, suddenly died, and out of respect for him the bill was shelved. It's expected to be reintroduced in January.

Selling a horse for slaughter is "fast, easy money," Fillo says. "Trainers are not the kind of people who are going to take out a classified ad. Most trainers want to do the right thing, but they may not have time. And when the truck comes around, they get $300 now instead of waiting for $800 [at auction]. Trainers only get so many stalls at a racetrack, and they need to free up space for healthy horses. I have had trainers call me and tell me, 'Get him out of here in three days or he's gone.'"

Joe Kasperski, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, once put a horse named Traffic Signal out to pasture through ReRun, a group that's similar to CANTER. "It's a lot easier than any one of us singly trying to find a new owner," says Kasperski, who runs horses at Hawthorne and Arlington. "It keeps horses out of the slaughterhouse, and it helps them lead productive lives."

The association donates $500 a year to CANTER and has invited Fillo to speak at meetings. She's earned the trust of the trainers because she's seen as an animal-welfare advocate rather than an animal-rights activist. "These people don't have a problem with the horses being used for what they were born for," Kasperski says. "There are some animal-rights groups that don't want animals to do anything but roam around."

Golden Bound won't be roaming around in his new life either.

On December 1 he left the racetrack for the last time. Davis loaded him into a van and drove him to the Town and Country Equestrian Center in Ballwin, Missouri, where he'll train to become a dressage horse.

"He's beautiful," says his new owner, John Deppen. He says the day after his arrival Golden Bound was led around the center's arena. He whinnied when he spotted himself in a mirror, thinking he was seeing a rival stud.

"Most racehorses that I've gotten off the track are wonderful," Deppen says. "They're already used to crowds. They're actually a better mount. When you get a horse off the track, nothing spooks 'em."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andre J. Jackson.

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