Friday, September 26, 2008
HORSE SLAUGHTER: Ending the Madness of Equicide: Part 1
By Marion Altieri
Thirty years ago, in the fall of 1978, when racing was more about sport and less about dollars, the great Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham brought the wonderful racehorse Exceller to New York in search of an Eclipse Award title. To do that he would need to defeat not one but two Triple Crown champions.
Born the year a horse named Secretariat put thoroughbred racing on the front covers of Time and Newsweek, Exceller, a son of Vaguely Noble from Bald Eagle’s mare, the champion Too Bald, shipped into Belmont Park after having won the San Juan Capistrano, Hollywood Invitational, Hollywood Gold Cup and, under a steadying 130 pounds, the Sunset Handicap, Grade 1 races all.
But the time had come to show the Eastern racing establishment what he could do by coming to the right coast for two races in which the five-year-old bay colt would take on Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the storied Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes.
In the five-horse Woodward, the speed of Seattle Slew was simply too dominating. Slew, always taking the lead from the start, set realistic fractions shadowed by Exceller throughout, but 10 furlongs in 2:00-flat was simply too much speed to overcome. Slew won by four lengths comfortably.
However, Whittingham figured that the Jockey Club’s mile and a half would be a great equalizer, and that the addition of the speedy Affirmed to keep Slew honest, would level the playing field.
As expected, Seattle Slew took the lead at the start of the 1978 Gold Cup but was pressed through wild early fractions by Affirmed, a run-off beneath jockey Steve Cauthen whose saddled had slipped. Cauthen was fighting to maintain control, adding a sense of drama and danger to a race that didn’t need either.
Calling fractions of :45 1/5 and 1:09 2/5 going a mile and a half punishing doesn’t begin to tell the tale. While this suicidal pace was on, and having little choice, the great Shoemaker bided his time on Exceller, at one point 22 lengths behind the leader, perhaps even farther back between calls.
Approaching Belmont’s sweeping far turn, Shoemaker made his move and Exceller cut into Seattle Slew’s lead with every stride. In a little over two furlongs, Slew’s advantage had evaporated. Exceller took a half length lead as the duo straightened away into the long Belmont straight.
Tiring from his unexpectedly maniacal duel with Affirmed, Seattle Slew drifted out in the final furlong but, incredibly, began to re-rally, bringing everyone who wasn’t already standing to their feet. Slew was so wide that no one in the building had a clue who had won the race and, after an interminable delay, it was official, Exceller by a nose.
In defeat Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew had run the race of his life, becoming an even bigger star by erasing any lingering doubts as to his true greatness. Exceller, the courageous winner of this celebrated marathon in a worthy 2:27 1/5 at sloppy Belmont Park, had become the back-story, a footnote to Jockey Club Gold Cup history. To view the race in it's entirety, click here.
Considering that Exceller eventually would retire as one of the sport’s first equine millionaires with earnings of almost $1.7 million, winning nearly half his 33 lifetime starts, he wasn’t a very lucky individual.
Indeed, Exceller never would win a major championship and retired after finishing third in his career finale, the G1 Century Handicap, in the April following his Gold Cup triumph. But who could have known that his troubles were only beginning.
* * *
Thirty years later, in May of this year, the air was thick with an uneasy sense coming from the podium. James J. Hickey, Jr., President of the American Horse Council, was addressing the august body of equine lawyers and journalists assembled at the University of Kentucky Equine Law Seminar in Lexington.
The participants, over 250 industry professionals, sat cheek-to-jowl patiently awaiting Hickey’s take on a number of concerns facing the industry and the AHC’s role in it. Reading from a text, he spent about 25 minutes talking about the law, lobbying, and loopholes, until a solitary questioner rose his hand.
“What is the American Horse Council’s stand on horse slaughter?”
After a lengthy pause, Hickey stated flatly that the American Horse Council is neutral on the subject. He explained it had to be that way because the organization’s members came down on both sides of the issue. Then, without hesitation or further explanation, Hickey hastily thanked his audience for their attention and the program was over.
The American Horse Council is one of the more visible organizations representing all groups whose lives are tethered to horses, whether those horses be Standardbreds, Quarter Horses, Paints or the Thoroughbred, the most visible of all breeds. On balance, the AHC does endeavor to be a force for positive change.
Another organization professing to have the welfare of horses to justify their existence is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Known as PETA, they surface opportunistically and while the whole world is watching, this year outside the gates of Pimlico and Belmont Park following the tragic accident that befell the filly Eight Belles, who broke down while pulling up after finishing second in Big Brown’s Kentucky Derby.
Horse slaughter, too, is a huge problem for racing and the sport is under attack from overenthusiastic groups like PETA. PETA’s modus operandi is to encourage well meaning converts to carry signs and speak out helter skelter against the racing industry while depending on these zealots for their existence. But while purporting to save animals, PETA has a vested economic interest in maintaining the status quo. According to its 2006 tax return, PETA raised nearly $30 million, their officers receiving $5 million in compensation.
Worse is the official PETA policy that contradicts the marketing of its brand image to the public, namely the killing of feral stray dogs and cats. PETA believes and convinces its members that these creatures are better off dead at the hand of a PETA official than in the homes of a new owner that “would abuse the animal” anyway, or worse. It‘s a practice they don‘t openly advertise.
PETA, whose executive director earns $500,000 annually, does important work and makes a positive difference but remains a thorn in the side of the horse racing industry. Their stated mission is to shut down Thoroughbred racing and the industry would do well not to underestimate PETA’s determination and ability to sway the American public.
Equicide, defined here as the slaughter of equines for money, is still practiced in this country on a de facto basis. While the slaughter of horses has been banned since 2007, the practice is enabled by people who sell their unwanted horses to the killers who then van them across the border to Canadian and Mexican slaughterhouses.
Every day, horses, burros and donkeys are crammed into trucks, hauled across the border where they’re shot in the face--stunned a “penetrating captive bolt”-- until their necks are slit while their hearts still beat. They then are strung up by one hoof until they bleed out.
The cruel practice of shipping American equines to foreign countries to be butchered is a problem that 70 percent of Americans believe is wrong and want abolished. “Our 10.5 million members, that’s one out of every 30 Americans, demand this practice be stopped. They want to see the slaughter end,” said Nancy Perry, Vice President of Government Affairs, Humane Society of the United States.
Horses are slaughtered for many reasons all coming down to the same thing: money. First to benefit are middlemen who buy the unwanted horses at auction and arrange for them shipped to foreign countries where they’re butchered for eventual sale. Horse meat sells for $20 a pound in France. A good draft horse can bring a stunning price because there’s a lot more meat on their bones. Horses are being punished for the crime of being alive at the wrong time, in the wrong place.
Last year, 301 Paint horses were sold to killer-buyers in a rigged auction at Stephenville, Texas. “Rigged” auctions allow only killer-buyer bidders into the building. Hearing about the incident and learning that 12 more Paints were to be sold the following day, country music legend Willie Nelson attended the auction and adopted the 12 horses on the spot, retiring them to his Texas farm.
“The killers are buying more horses now than when the plants in the U.S. were open,” Nelson told HRI. “My family and I have been working with the Animal Welfare Institute to outlaw the practice of horse slaughter for the last seven years. But every five minutes we fail to act, an American horse is slaughtered in Mexico or Canada.”
One such place is the city-owned slaughterhouse in Juarez, Mexico, literally a stone’s throw from El Paso, Texas, making the job of killer-buyers easier. “The continued legality of killer-buyers is a predatory, opportunistic and foreign-driven business that we should not allow to operate on our soil,” Perry added.
Written by Marion Altieri
Edited by: John Pricci
Part 2 of HORSE SLAUGHTER: Ending the Madness of Equicide
By Marion Altieri
The mantra “unwanted horses” is the rallying cry for pro-slaughter advocates. This group believes that slaughtering unwanted horses is more humane than if the horses were neglected or abandoned, allowed to die a slow death. It’s a resolution that conveniently ignores the humane component.
John Holland works with the group Americans Against Horse Slaughter and is a staunch defender of horses. In his research paper, “The Relationship Between Horse Slaughter and Reported Cases of Abuse and Neglect” the charts, graphs and text indicate that the reduction of horse slaughter does not significantly increase neglect and abuse of unwanted animals.
Russell Williams, vice president of Hanover Shoe Farms, the largest and most prestigious Standardbred farm in the United States, emphasizes that as long as slaughter is available, alternatives won’t be considered, that it’s nothing more than death made an easy first option for owners and breeders looking to shun their responsibility. “We’ve got to keep in mind that [breeding and racing] brings with it an obligation to properly handle the unwanted horses we end up with. If we don’t eliminate slaughter, we’ll never come to grips with proper ways to solve that problem. It’s expensive, and it’s hard, but it’s got to be done.”
Jackson Knowlton, managing partner of the Sackatoga Stables group that owns 2003 Kentucky Derby champion Funny Cide and a member of the New York State Task Force on Retired Racehorses, places the responsibility of equine welfare squarely in his own lap and those of his peers. “From an owner’s perspective, we all have a responsibility to assure that the horses we race have a happy and healthy retirement. I believe that all owners should share in the financial responsibility to assure that this becomes a reality.”
The most humane solution is not necessarily an easy decision, however, even if it’s the only option available. Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito and his wife Kim have been active slaughter abolitionists for years. “The main thing is that this problem has been going on for too long; we’ve been aware for a very long time now. ‘What do you do with these horses?’ If you must, and only absolutely must, you euthanize them. Look, we all know the humane thing to do, and we have to do it. You don’t send horses to be slaughtered.”
In addition to making horsemen responsible for the privilege of ownership, there are two other possible ways to address the problem of unwanted horses. The first is staggeringly simple: Don’t make so many of them. Last year alone, 161,313 new foals hit the ground: 9,133 Standardbreds, 34,350 Thoroughbreds, and an astounding 117,830 Quarter Horses.
According to the American Quarter Horse Association web-site, there are over three million Quarter Horses in the U. S. alone. The AQHA is funded via the process of registering American Quarter Horse foals. These staggering numbers are made possible through artificial insemination. One good stallion can be responsible for 5,000 foals a year, a conservative estimate say some.
If a Quarter Horse doesn’t have the talent to earn his way, becomes ill, or just doesn‘t have the physical tools, the slaughter option makes it easy. It’s not difficult to understand why the AQHA is a vocal advocate for horse slaughter. Last year, 76,000 horses were slaughtered according to the Humane Society’s Perry, who added that slaughterhouses are on track to butcher 100,000 horses in 2008.
It’s encouraging that not all Quarter Horse owners feel the same way about slaughter as policy. “How could I not be opposed to this appalling cruelty,” asked Steven Long, an owner of retired Quarter Horses and author/editor of the publication “Texas Horse Talk.” “These are the creatures that built America. The agribusiness industry views them as a commodity. I have many cowboy friends, and I love them, but they’re just wrong. Horse slaughter must end now.”
Until the enabling of slaughter is abolished in this country, there are other options. Horses can have a career that doesn’t involve beating other horses to a finish post. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sent a questionnaire to horse owners seeking to learn how horses can have a second career. “There’s such a big area but it’s expensive,” said Thoroughbred breeder-owner Frank Maner of Quiet Oak Farm in upstate New York. “There’s so many horses being sold who never race. We need a middleman, an organization to find new owners, to broker [an exchange].”
There are many worthy retirement organizations doing important work, such as the Exceller Fund, named for the 1978 Gold Cup hero. Trainer Gary Contessa is the new president of the Exceller Fund, a non-profit organization that transitions former racehorses into new careers. “My whole life has been built around racehorses. I see this as an opportunity to give even more back to these wonderful animals,” said last year’s record-setting trainer on the New York circuit.
“I have numerous retired Thoroughbreds at my farm in upstate New York and have b een a major supporter of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and Equine Advocates. But I want to do more. My primary focus will be in raising awareness and funds for the continuing care of horses,” Contessa said when named the organization’s president last month.
The best hope for insuring that the slaughter of American horses stops is H.R. 6598, the Conyers-Burton Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act of 2008 introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The bill’s passage, approved by voice vote in committee Tuesday night, would prohibit the sale and transport of horses to foreign countries for slaughter and eventual human consumption. While the bill has heightened awareness in the halls of power, it still needs public support.
“As a Representative of one of the premiere Thoroughbred racetracks in the U.S., Saratoga Race Course, I find it imperative that we pass this commonsense piece of legislation,” said Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York). Sandy Treadwell, her Republican counterpart, who’s running for Congress, failed to return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
“H.R. 6598 is the best chance we’ve had in years to pass this legislation,” affirmed Willie Nelson. “Call your representatives today and ask them to co-sponsor H.R. 6598. Tell them their decision should be an easy one.” “Those who are trying to stop this are responsible for horse’s deaths,” added Perry. “The bill’s passage is urgent.”
Like most Thoroughbred horsemen, the august Jockey Club, the sport’s registrar, wants equicide abolished. “The Jockey Club is opposed to the slaughter or processing of Thoroughbreds for consumption by humans or animals. This includes the sale and/or transportation of Thoroughbreds for slaughter or processing for consumption by humans or animals. The Jockey Club maintains its long-standing commitment to the care and welfare of Thoroughbreds and believes that Thoroughbreds should at all times be treated humanely and with dignity,” said Bob Curran, Jockey Club vice president of Corporate Communications.
The great Exceller, winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup run 30 years ago this weekend, never did win a formal championship. And so, after running the race of his life, defeating two Triple Crown champions in the process, Exceller entered stud service at Gainesway Farm in Kentucky. But not long after that he fell out of favor. Foreign interests had begun their assault on the American stud book. Speed had become the commodity of choice, more important than heart or stoutness or versatility or, as some might argue, ultimately, class.
So off Exceller went to Sweden, sold to a bre eder named Gote Ostlund. According to the Exceller Fund web-site, and contrary to rumor, the horse was not infertile. Indeed, he covered more than 40 mares in his final season at stud in Sweden. But Ostlund had made some bad business decisions, went bankrupt, and demanded that Exceller be slaughtered.
In 1997, Exceller, the same year he was nominated for--and would eventually gain--admission into the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, this extraordinary horse found himself in a Swedish slaughterhouse, thousands of miles from the dirt and grass upon which he raced and grazed and achieved greatness, and from the fans who admired and loved him, Exceller was murdered for no good reason.
Gandhi said that a society is judged by its treatment of its weakest members. The Bible teaches people to “rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter.” And, as Edmund Burke reminds us, all’s that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Going forward, as racing fights for its financial and aesthetic survival, pressured from without and within, the horse industry might do well to recall the cautionary words of Martin Niemoller on the subject of the inactions of the past and what it might portend for the future. To wit:
“When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist. When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat. When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist. When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn't a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.”
Written by Marion Altieri
Edited by: John Pricci