As Kentucky Derby 138 approaches, attention is focused on the 3-year-old crop of young thoroughbreds vying to win the sport's most prestigious race. They run their hearts out for our amusement.
But do you ever wonder what happens to these and other thoroughbred racehorses once their racing or breeding careers are over?
With the growing popularity of big box office horse movies such as Seabiscuit, Dreamer, Secretariat, and War Horse, comes the heightened awareness of the welfare of these beautiful and versatile thoroughbreds (to say nothing of HBO's short-lived series Luck, canceled after three horses died during production).
Many of these horses are still young and have their long lives ahead of them, with much to still contribute after they are retired from racing careers. Thoroughbreds have been successfully retrained in many disciplines including dressage, eventing, hunter-jumpers, barrel racing, pole bending, polo and trail riding. After it became known that Exceller, a champion thoroughbred, was sent to a slaughterhouse in Sweden in 1997 and 2002 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand’s death at slaughter in Japan after his breeding career was over, there was a glaring focus on the plight of many retired racehorses. Endings like theirs, however, do not have to happen.
Thanks to Kentucky-based thoroughbred racehorse adoption and retirement facilities, many of Kentucky’s off-the-track thoroughbreds are getting their second chances at new careers or enjoying a safe and dignified retirement at facilities dedicated to their well being.
My daughters and I made the trip down to Lexington on a gorgeous April spring day to visit two of these facilities—The Makers Mark Secretariat Center located in the Kentucky Horse Park and Old Friends Equine, a Thoroughbred retirement facility, located in Georgetown. Both facilities also educate the public about the thoroughbred horse’s incredible attributes.
Makers Mark Secretariat Center opened in 2004 and is located at the Kentucky Horse Park. Director Susanna Thomas explained the process that incoming thoroughbreds go through to prepare them for adoption. She and her staff of interns and volunteers perform an extensive holistic evaluation of the horses when they come in, on both their physical and mental status with vet checks, equine dental checkups, time with farrier (a specialist in equine foot care) and any other care they may need. They are then put into retraining that consists of ground work as well as a varying reschooling work schedule. Once it has been determined what kind of future career they're best suited for, they start getting trained in that direction then put up for adoption. Potential adopters must go through an application process that ensures that they will be a good match for the horse. If you adopt one of the Makers Mark Secretariat Center’s thoroughbreds, you are also sent home with a binder full of background information about the horse and all of its health records.
We toured their immaculately kept stables and visited with some of the adoptable horses. We found Monkey Toes, Victorias Secret, Duke, and Rugby all lovable horses eating up all the attention we could give them. We were also fortunate to be present when Deb Fabiani, a Saddle Fitter and Trisser PT Therapist, as well as owner of Arbitrage Tack of Oakville, Conn., was conducting a saddle-fitting clinic to determine which of the center’s saddles best fit each horse.
The center is always in need of capable interns to help train the horses and other volunteers to assist with other tasks. College interns can do a four-month internship in the spring and fall and get credit for it. Two interns, Julia and Alex, both attend the University of Kentucky, and were present at the time of our visit. Julia helps with the training of the horses and Alex is a marketing major and helps with marketing strategies and fundraising ideas for the Center.
The Makers Mark Secretariat Center trains about a dozen horses at a time. This facility is located at the far end of the Kentucky Horse Park past the new Alltech Indoor Arena. I highly recommend a visit as these beautiful horses with their loving intelligent curiosity will win over your heart. To find out more about them and their horses visit its website . The Kentucky Horse Park is located at 4089 Iron Works Pkwy., Lexington, KY.
We were taken on a golf cart tour by charismatic Old Friends Founder Michael Blowen. His passion for the horses and the farm’s mission was evident; he loves the horses that reside there and carries a bag of carrots around to feed the retirees. He has a big heart and more than once intervened when a horse, who did not have a distinguished racing career, was in jeopardy of going to a bad place and brought them to the farm to retire. There were many funny stories of famous visitors to his farm including well known jockeys and movie stars (Blowen is a retired film critic).
The farm’s mascot is a little dapple grey pony named Little Silver Charm. Charming he was as he and Blowen won over old and young alike when they entertained a group of visitors with a game of soccer with Blowen receiving a kiss from his little buddy afterwards.
Little Silver Charm has graced the pages of a major magazine and was the subject of a drawing done by actor Jack Nicholson. He was plucked from a slaughter truck by an acquaintance of Blowen’s and came to reside at Old Friends.
Old Friends is the only thoroughbred retirement center that takes in stallions. As a result, it houses some well-known retirees such as 1998 Breeders Cup winner Gulch and Blowen’s favorite, the 24-year-old Marquetry, who won $2.5 million and sired two Breeder’s Cup winners. Another famous thoroughbred retired at Old Friends is the horse that played Seabiscuit in the movie of the same name—his real name is Popcorns Deelites. His sire, Afternoon Deelites, also resides there.
Old Friends has just opened up a new facility at Merefield Farm in Midway. Rob and Missy Maclin own this new facility. Old Friends leases 120 acres to consolidate into one place retired horses that were being boarded off site. Eventually Old Friends hopes to start retraining younger retired thoroughbred racehorses for new careers and get them adopted to new homes. Old Friends plans for Bluegrass Tours to provide a shuttle service between farms in the future. Old Friends is open to the public for tours where you can visit its equine residents. To make a reservation for your tour, call the office at 502-863-1775.
A fundraiser will be held on behalf of Old Friends Equine, Ferdinand's Ball, named after the Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand, as part of the Kentucky Derby pre-celebrations, will be held on Thursday, May 3, at the Frazier Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. For more information, visit Ferdinand's Ball website .
Old Friends is located at 1841 Paynes Depot Road, Georgetown, Ky.. To find out more about Old Friend’s, visit its website .
Here's information about additional thoroughbred retirement and adoption organizations that have retired thoroughbreds residing at their facilities or Thoroughbred horses up for adoption.
New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program was founded in 1992 to offer retiring racehorses a safe haven, rehabilitation and continued education with placement in experienced caring homes. New Vocations runs the biggest thoroughbred adoption program in the country. Most horses arriving at New Vocations are injured and thin, suffering from the normal occupational hazards of racing. New Vocations strives to teach retired racehorses needed new skills so as to be useful in a new career and increase their chances of being adopted. Without these new skills, off-the-track racehorses are at high risk of being sent to the local livestock auction where many times they are sold to slaughter. In 2011 a record 429 ex-racehorses were placed in new homes by New Vocations. (Famed thoroughbred racehorse trainer Nick Zito’s wife, Kim, sits on the advisory board for New Vocations.) New Vocations is co-hosting a program called Thoroughbreds for All! after the Rolex Kentucky cross-country day on April 28 to promote retired thoroughbred adoptions. For more information on this program, check out this article on Louisville.com . For more information on New Vocations and its horses available for adoption, visit its website .
CANTER (The Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses) started as a solution to help racehorses find new careers by connecting buyers and sellers through posting racehorses for sale on the Internet. CANTER has a Kentucky-based program in which it assumes ownership of thoroughbreds and has volunteers who approach trainers and gather information on horses that are being retired and are for sale by trainers. CANTER than shares the information on its website. CANTER is an all-volunteer organization. Kentucky-based thoroughbreds that are available on the CANTER site can be viewed here .
Second Stride provides professional rehabilitation, retraining, and placement for retired thoroughbred racehorses in qualified homes so that they may reach their full potential in a productive second career. Second Stride is made up of volunteers who are active in other areas of the racing industry: owners, partnership managers, handicappers and trainers. They work to improve racing from within, and know from firsthand experience how many people may have the desire to retire a horse safely, but at times find that difficult to do. Horses available for adoption at Second Stride can be viewed here .
ReRun was founded in 1996 to rehabilitate, retrain and find adoptive homes for thoroughbred racehorses when their careers on the track are over. Currently ReRun’s Kentucky-based thoroughbred horses are pensioned with ReRun but you can help offset the expenses of their care by going here . ReRun has other ex-racehorses available for adoption at some of their other sites and you can view those at its main website .
The Blackburn Correctional Complex is a thoroughbred retirement foundation facility that through its Second Chances program pairs retired racehorses with prisoners in a vocational training program for the inmates. The Blackburn Correctional facility has 55 thoroughbred horses currently retired at its facility. A movie has been made about what happens when prison inmates meet a thoroughbred horse, called Homestretch . Visitors can schedule a visit at the equine complex during weekdays from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. by contacting Linda Dyer, herd manager, at LindaC.Dyer@ky.gov . Blackburn Correctional Complex is located at 3111 Spurr Road, Lexington, Ky.
If you are interested in adopting a thoroughbred from any of these adoption organizations, you will need to fill out an adoption application and get approved. Depending on the organization, most adopters will need equine experience to get approved so that the horse has the best chance of getting successfully placed in a suitable home. Adoption applications can be accessed on the organizations’ website links listed above. To see a sample of some of the thoroughbred horses that are up for adoption and view photos taken at the Makers Mark Secretariat Center, Old Friends Equine, and the Blackburn Correctional Complex, take a look at the slideshow at the end of this article. To see all of the horses that are up for adoption, visit the websites of the adoption organizations listed.
Donations to these organizations to help offset the cost of the care, retraining and adoption efforts that help the magnificent racehorse we call the Thoroughbred are always welcome.
Photos & Video: Makers Mark Secretariat Center and Old Friends photos and video: Courtesy of Anna Blanton
Blackburn Correctional Complex photos: Courtesy of The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation
New Vocations horse photos: Courtesy of New Vocations
Thoroughbreds Aviator and Catch Me If U Can photos: Courtesy of Carly Dolan