The Business of Thoroughbred Rescue: My Interview with Caroline Betts, Director & President of Southern California Thoroughbred Rescue

One of the most informative of the weekly thoroughbred business Twitter chats I participated in recently was on the subject of thoroughbred rescue and retirement.  The chat was hosted by Caroline Betts, an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Southern California, and Founder, President and Director of Southern California Thoroughbred Rescue (SCTR)

In part one of an ongoing series on thoroughbred rescue and retirement, I spoke with Caroline to understand the ecomics behind the issue, learn more about what horseplayers can do to support horses once their racing careers are over and discuss the potential impact of tracks alloting one percent of their takeout to thoroughbred rescue and retirement organizations.

Caroline Betts - Founder, Director and President of SCTR

DB: Set up the problem for me – of all the thoroughbreds that end their racing careers, how many are fortunate enough to end up with rescue organizations?

CB: It’s impossible to tell how many find a safe landing spot in non profits, although a national funding/granting organization for thoroughbreds (like Thoroughbred Charities of America) might be able to provide some proximate numbers. I’m guessing a pretty small fraction. Some are sold privately off the track to people looking for sport and pleasure horse prospects, and the number of those is unknown too. To my knowledge, there are no records or studies.  

Traditionally, the scale of the problem has been defined by proximate numbers of thoroughbreds slaughtered for human consumption in any year, which expressed as portion of the annual foal crop is believed to be about 50 percent. If recent foal crops average somewhere around 30,000, then the few slaughter plant records of breeds we have suggest that somewhere between 15,000 and 21,000 are slaughtered each year depending on the total number of horses slaughtered (thoroughbreds are about 15 percent of a total of 100,000-140,000 American horses slaughtered annually). Of course, these numbers include not only recently retired racehorses, but retired breeding stock (broodmares especially), culled youngsters, and older thoroughbreds that originally found homes post-racing but are subsequently discarded by private owners. We have no idea what the number of retiring racehorses is nationally of these. At local horse auctions where the animals are at high risk for being purchased for slaughter, recent racehorses (some from layup facilities) and discarded broodmares together constitute by far the largest portion of all thoroughbreds we find. 

 It’s important to note the distinction between “rescue” non-profit organizations like SCTR (which takes in horses that are already in the slaughter pipeline at auction and from feedlots), non-profit “retirement/transitioning” farms which intake thoroughbreds directly from the track, and programs like that of CANTER which work with trainers and owners seeking new homes for retiring horses by “listing” thoroughbreds available for sale/adoption directly from the track. 

One of the problems that thoroughbreds confront is in reputation and marketing for second careers; when horses that are transitioning directly off the track are marketed as “rescues”, I believe that damages their reputation with the sport horse world. The thoroughbred was formerly the breed of choice for many equestrian sports – that’s no longer the case in this country in general, and so they can use all of the good marketing they can get. Being perceived as “rescues” doesn’t help their cause.    

DB: It seems like there’s a greater awareness of rescue organizations, but is that translating to more donations and horses coming to organizations like yours?

CB: Not right now – but the economy is so weak that it’s hard to tell whether greater awareness is helping significantly or not.  Our intakes have stalled to a halt this year (2011) because adoptions are stalled (no horses are finding homes which would free up resources to take in more), and donations are so slow that we can’t possibly expand the number of horses we service. This year, we’ve had to fundraise at local events more frequently, and we’ve had to apply for many more grants to maintain the horses we have. 

DB: Where’s the disconnect – who needs to be doing more (horseplayers, tracks, national racing entities, etc)?

CB: Everyone needs to be doing more, as long as the industry’s horses are systematically winding up at slaughter; as a portion of the foal crop, if roughly 50 percent die at slaughter that is far too high. Recent efforts include several initiatives by the Jockey Club to assist non profits and private owners of thoroughbreds – the online searchable tattoo database, Thoroughbred Connect are examples – and the NTRA’s aftercare website is another. There is “chatter” about work of these organizations towards a national funding scheme, but we’ve seen nothing to emerge from any discussions to date.

My own view is that the burden of financial support, and marketing for, thoroughbreds transitioning off the track should be a shared burden by all industry participants, with owners and breeders taking on the lion’s share of it if correct incentives for responsible/accountable ownership and breeding are to be established. 

We have seen a couple of good funding initiatives recently. CARMA in California takes one-third of one percent of owners’ purses and distributes it to non profits for example. At least two Stronach tracks to my knowledge have dedicated matching funds towards other funding programs for retiring racehorses. There are some initiatives to apply “per start fees” towards funding for retiring racehorses.

But let me emphasize – these programs to date are NOT comprehensive funding schemes and frankly scratch at the surface of the problem which is of substantial scale. Recent race-track anti-slaughter policies targeting trainers found to send horses to auction and slaughter are really pretty useless, in my opinion, without associated support in physical and financial resources for owners and trainers to utilize alternatives.  

DB: People talk about the need for coordinated marketing efforts, or even a national campaign, to attract new racing fans, but is there any call or steps being taken for this type of effort when it comes to thoroughbred rescue and retirement?

I think the NTRA and Jockey Club efforts to promote retiring thoroughbreds are examples of this, but so far none of the efforts have resulted in a national funding program for thoroughbred retirement. If the perception of retiring thoroughbreds as rescues or charity cases is to change, and the reality that many of them are at high risk for slaughter, funding is crucial.

DB: As a purely hypothetical situation, if tracks were to allocate one percent of their takeout to support rescue and retirement organizations, what would be the impact?

CB: National handle per The Jockey Club was about $11.4 billion in 2010. One percent of that provides $114 million for retirement funding. If that were used to prevent any one of the currently 15,000+ thoroughbreds slaughtered from entering that pipeline, then each of them gets about $7,000. It works out to about $4,000 per member of a 30,000 foal crop.

That obviously isn’t enough to support a horse for the rest of its life.  But it is enough for most non-profit retirement and transitioning organizations to be willing to take the horse in, knowing that all of its expenses for roughly 12 months are covered. Some of those would be adopted over the course of a year, some would require permanent retirement due to injuries, etc., which is very costly. But – it’s a start. Other charitable and funding efforts could then be devoted to providing support for those that cannot transition into a second career and need to be supported in retirement indefinitely.

So if you had that – several thousand dollars for any thoroughbred at risk designated for it to be transitioned or retired through a non-profit – you’d have an automatic safety net for retiring racehorses and potentially also breeding stock which would fund each horse for at least a year.    

DB: Would this hypothetical one percent solve the problem, or is it only a band-aid on a much larger issue?

CB: I think it goes a chunk of the way towards solving the problem as I’ve described, but obviously continued and increased charitable and industry funding efforts for permanent retirees are needed. Why can’t non profits just take in every deserving racehorse that’s retiring today at the track as soon as they are asked?  Because they can’t afford to – not without jeopardizing the support and welfare of horses already in their care. 

A lump sum to support that horse for a year or more would shift that decision in favor of intake. Many retirement organizations currently require sponsorship of several thousand dollars to take in a retiring horse – and very few owners are willing to pay for that; although I take nothing from those owners that are and do, it simply is not the norm. It’s not a complete solution – but it is large enough to really make a substantial difference for horses at risk.   

I’d recommend that the funds be centrally managed by a reputable and credible national industry organization. A per capita fund should be associated one-for-one with each horse’s registration number. For horses able to transition directly off the track into the sport horse world privately, without entering a non- profit, or which go on to breeding careers, unused monies remain in the central fund until/unless that horse is identified via its registration number in a high risk situation subsequently, which triggers release of the fund to a non-profit for intake.

For all other retiring racehorses, the fund is triggered at time of retirement to permit admission to a non-profit. The central fund should be invested, and earn interest. Non profits receiving funds to admit horses should be thoroughly vetted.  

DB: Is there enough awareness among the racing public of how many rescue organizations are out there, and is the visibility of some of the larger ones making it tougher for smaller ones to attract donations?

CB: I think it’s very difficult (speaking from direct experience) for the racing public to know about all organizations in-taking retiring thoroughbreds across the country, much less understand the differences among them. I do know that many among the racing public want to help, however. One great thing about national and local non profits that solely raise funds for racehorse retirement and distribute them as grants, is that they do the screening on behalf of prospective donors.

All of them have some screening criteria for allocating grants in addition to establishing tax exemption and financial health; for example, the TCA requires written veterinary statements of properties and horses, CARMA directly visits properties (as does the ASPCA by the way, which also does allocate grant funding to organizations caring for ex-racehorses). So that function – figuring out which organizations are worthy of racing public support – is being played by the granting organizations.

While I would love to see more exposure given to all of us individual non profits, as a donor to charities myself – I want to know that my donations are being used wisely. So I recommend that donors either go VISIT a racing charity and its horses before donating or donate via the TCA, Blue Horse Charities, CARMA, After the Finish Line, Horse Aid Live, the ASPCA  (designate monies for ex-racers), etc. i.e. give to organizations that will do the screening for you.

In the meantime, organizations such as the NTRA and Jockey Club can help all of us by providing a full list of racing charities on their websites with links to our websites. 

DB: What can horseplayers do?  There are so many rescue organizations, and they might not know where there donations would make the greatest impact.

CB: We all need donations desperately, so despite the caveats I make above, I would never want to discourage donations to non profits which – for example – are already receiving regular grants from funding organizations and have been “vetted” in order to achieve that. Most rescue/retirement organizations will have a list of sponsors/grantors somewhere on their website, so check for that to see whether they are supported by granting and fundraising organizations.

If they are, the chances are that they are legitimate, have good horse care codes of practice, and also that they need desperately donations in addition to whatever grants they receive to support their horses.

DB: All signs seem to point to the sport struggling (lower attendence, lower handle), is it safe to say there’s a direct correlation to this and a ripple effect to rescue organizations?

CB: Absolutely there is, or will be, since the industry is a substantial (although not exclusive) source of fundraising and grants. As industry income and revenue contracts, so do funds available for grants from organizations like the TCA for example. I guess the upside is that if the industry continues to contract in absolute terms so should the number of thoroughbreds needing aftercare. I’m not sure that we are seeing that at this point, however, at least relative to the recent past. 

DB: What’s the long-term outlook for thoroughbred rescue in general? 

CB: I think it’s impossible to say much without knowing whether the industry plans to establish institutional/mandatory funding.  If that happens, and it is sufficiently comprehensive (and effectively managed), I think the outlook for retiring thoroughbreds could be better than it ever has been.

If it doesn’t, I think that despite increased awareness and currently a larger number of organizations working for retired horses, a combination of factors makes the outlook pretty grim. We have an economically contracting industry, which will find it difficult to justify prioritizing racehorse retirement; an economy in pretty long-term trouble; a hay producing sector that is both in contraction (substituting to corn and other more profitable crops) and also exporting more product to Asia, all of which are factors raising prices long term (independently of short term shortages due to weather conditions); and more organizations competing for a declining pool of within industry financial resources and adopters .

You will see “exits” from the current set of organizations available to assist thoroughbreds and possibly a decline in the quality of support that surviving ones can offer. Times are very difficult for all non profits that are directly caring for horses.

Along with the resources and organizations linked above, you can also follow Caroline (SoCalTBRescue) on Twitter, as well as through SCTR’s Facebook page.

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One Response to The Business of Thoroughbred Rescue: My Interview with Caroline Betts, Director & President of Southern California Thoroughbred Rescue

  1. Steve says:

    Derek,
    Great interview. You asked Caroline about allocating 1% of takeout toward Thoroughbred retirement. Another, perhaps better, option is for states using revenues from slots and/or racinos to subsidize horse racing purses to also allocate a small percentage to Thoroughbred retirement. That would be tens of millions of dollars, but probably wouldn’t make the racino owners very happy.

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