Of the thousands of two-and-three-year-old Thoroughbreds sent to the racetrack every year, very few become top stars like Secretariat or Silver Charm. Most run at subsistence level, winning enough money to pay for themselves and giving their owners a small profit. And, unless you are a star, your future can be somewhat bleak when your racing days are over.
This monthly series will follow the training process of Thoroughbred racehorse as he retires from racing and begins his new career in eventing.
But, with a little time and patience, an ex-racer can go on to flourish in a second career in a wide variety of disciplines. These horses are generally athletic, intelligent, and very handled, and can provide a lot of athleticism and ability for a small price tag. Additionally, you may be giving a horse often doomed for the slaughter yards a second chance at life. Though these horses are not generally a good idea for beginners, they usually do not warrant their reputation as “lunatics” and with love and patience can become excellent companions and competitors.
I began my search for my ex-racer on the Internet, utilizing this wondrous new technology to look at horses far and wide. Fairly quickly, I decided to investigate some of the rescue and referral groups for Thoroughbreds. Groups like these provide a valuable service, as the racetrack can be a confusing and sometimes risky place to try to negotiate a deal for someone from the outside.
There are seemingly endless numbers of these groups, and its important to do a good bit of research into each organization. Ask if you can you speak to other purchasers/ adopters to see how much success they have had in placing horses in appropriate homes. Some other factors to consider may include:
* Does the organization screen the horses or trainers, or will they take any horse that needs a home?
* If it is a rescue, what, if any, restrictions will there be on you the adopter (typical clauses included no breeding of mares, limitation of geographical placement, farm inspections, etc.).
When going to look at horses at the track, bring a notebook to take notes on any questions or issues which may come up. If you have never worked around racehorses, or are not experienced at looking at horses, then bring along a qualified individual with experience in evaluating temperament and conformation-a trainer, friend, vet-to help you know what you are looking at. In most cases you will be unable to ride the horses, so keen observation of its gaits and way of going, and its reaction to stimuli will be your best determiner of its suitability .
On the duly appointed day I drove to Penn National race track near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to look at five horses, though it turned out one had sold the morning before I had arrived. As it turned out, I was pretty much sold on the first horse I looked at. He was a 6 year old, 16.3h liver chestnut gelding. Much like that scene from Jerry Maguire, he “had me from hello” when I approached his stall and he came up to the door, put his forehead against my chest, and snuffled softly against my stomach. He had good feet, but was slightly crooked in the front legs, and had something of a big ankle on the left front. His tendons all looked and felt good, and he was a nice mover with big, kind eyes. His back was a bit long, but he had an elegant uphill front end, and a powerful hind end. He looked like he could run and jump, and acted like he would try anything you asked of him.
Since I had his registered name, I went home to do some research on his history. The Jockey Club does a marvelous job of record keeping, and pretty much every obscure statistic about a horse’s family and history can be found at their site for a small fee. There are several free sites, but few offer the depth of information that you can get from the source itself. I discovered that this horse was a grandson son of the great Alydar, and had a very good dosage index for distance-something important in my sport of eventing. I also learned that he had not raced as a two-year-old, and had raced a whopping 40 times. Thus, I felt that (a) he was entitled to have a few cosmetic issues on his legs, and (b) he was obviously a tough and sound animal to have come through all that with no major problems.
The final step was the pre-purchase vet exam, including x-rays. In many cases you may be able to negotiate a better price by not doing a pre-purchase, or by doing only a clinical one. If the horse is blemish-free that may be a good option. In my case however, there were some blemishes, and I wanted to be sure that they were merely cosmetic. It would be rare for a horse with any significant racing history to have a totally clean vetting, so any issue that come up should be discussed with your vet in the context of what is acceptable in light of you intended us, and what is not. Our boy passed the clinical well, including all his flexion tests and hoof testers. The x-rays showed some minor arthritic changes in one hock and that the ankle was most likely an old osselet, with no bony changes in the joint-essentially a windpuff. It was felt that horse would be fine for my chosen activity of lower level eventing and dressage.
Next time: bringing your new horse home and helping him adapt to life away from the racetrack.
Resources on the web:
Referral and adoption organizations (by no means a complete list, but basically the largest and most well-known):
Mix N Match – www.mixnmatch.bizland.com
Rerun – www.rerun.org
CANTER – www.horses-canter.net
United Pegasus Fund – www.unitedpegasus.com
Pedigree and performance information:
The Jockey Club Information Systems – www.tjcis.com
Del Mar Race Track pedigree research (free, but is not a complete listing) – www.dmtc.com/cgi-bin/quicklinks.cgi
General information on the issues surrounding ex-racers:
The Exceller Fund – www.excellerfund.org