His name was Ferdinand. He left the first post in the 1986 Kentucky Derby as a longshot, but by the time the field turned for home he was sitting on the rail with a clear lane to the finish. In an otherwise plodding Derby, Ferdinand charged past a pack of three horses with less than a quarter-mile to go and galloped to victory in horse racing’s most important race.
A year later, he won the 1987 Breeder’s Cup Classic, nudging Derby champion Alysheba by a nose at the wire. He was named Horse of the Year. His legacy as a champion, it seemed, was ensured.
Everyone forgot about Ferdinand for the next decade and a half. But he returned to headlines in 2003, when Blood-Horse Magazine learned that at some point in 2002, Ferdinand had been slaughtered in Japan, where he almost surely became food for either pets or humans.
The United States is a hotbed for horse racing but not for slaughter. There hasn’t been a horse slaughtered here since 2007. But that doesn’t mean American racehorses aren’t finding their way to slaughterhouses abroad. A 2012 Government Accountability Office report found that nearly 140,000 American horses were sent to slaughter in countries like Canada, Mexico, and Japan in 2010. Between 10 and 20 percent of them were racehorses, according to industry estimates. Their meat is cured for human consumption or use in pet food.
Slaughter isn’t the only issue. Retired horses are often subject to neglect and abuse, and industry experts outlined a number of reasons for it. Rising crop prices have increased the costs of the already-expensive hobby of owning horses, and caring for and maintaining those who never made it to the racetrack or whose money-earning days are over isn’t cost-effective, or possible, for many owners. Racehorses also carry a stigma, one advocates are quick to dispel, as tempestuous, temperamental animals with few redeeming qualities outside the career they were bred to undertake.
And then there’s the breeding itself. Forget champions like Ferdinand: a horse that will simply earn money throughout a multi-year racing career is hard enough to come by. The quest for such horses leads to overbreeding, according to industry experts, and that creates overcrowded farms with little room for retired horses. Forced to choose between a foal with potential and a horse who is neither fit for racing nor breeding, there really is no choice at all.
Most owners aren’t selling their retired horses for slaughter intentionally. But at auctions across the country, “kill buyers” line up to buy cheap stallions and mares, and their only aim is to turn a profit by loading their new purchases into vans and shipping them to foreign slaughterhouses. Soon, they won’t even have to send the horses to other countries.
In 2011, a trio of American lawmakers took a major step to bring slaughter back to the United States. Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) stripped language banning horse slaughter from a government spending bill. The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a slaughterhouse in New Mexico last year (it hasn’t opened yet), and states like Oklahoma have lifted their bans on horse slaughter.
The danger isn’t just to horses, but to humans too. Racehorses are treated with drugs that are not approved for human consumption, including the controversial non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone, a carcinogen that is “banned for use in any animal intended for human consumption because it causes serious and lethal idiosyncratic adverse effects in humans.”
The concerns for both horses and humans have sparked efforts to prohibit slaughtering. Nearly 80 percent of the public opposes the practice, and Congress has considered a federal horse slaughter ban in each session since 2006. It has failed each time, leaving the effort instead to states. Lawmakers in New York are working to ban the practice outright while also making it illegal to sell or transport horses for slaughter in foreign countries.
The industry and advocacy groups are also making efforts not just to prevent slaughter, but to reduce the number of horses facing neglect and abuse after their careers too. New York instituted the “Ferdinand Fee,” a voluntary fee paid by owners when they enter horses into a race, to raise money to prevent slaughter and to help find horses willing post-retirement homes. The Jockey Club has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to thoroughbred retirement charities, and auctions have pledged to donate percentages of sales receipts to retirement foundations. The results have been modest thus far.
Nonprofit groups seeking to prevent slaughter and abuse have also emerged. Through free sales listings and by linking nonprofit affiliates, groups like CANTER and The Homes for Horses Coalition have attempted to place retired horses in new homes where they can be re-purposed for other uses. Racehorses, those groups say, are easily-trained for show competition, for therapeutic purposes for children and adults with autism and other diseases, and for hobby.
“There are so many places for these horses other than slaughter,” Cindy Gendron of the Homes for Horses Coalition, one such organization, told CNN. “Now people are using them for therapeutic riding, equine-assisted psychotherapy, show events and family horses.”
Those groups, however, have limited capability, and while they routinely place horses in new homes, they can’t cover the thousands of horses that retire each year.
But horse racing as an industry is pushing, on multiple fronts, to “pay closer attention to the welfare of our horses,” Dr. Rick M. Arthur, the equine medical director at the University of California-Davis and the California Horse Racing Board, told ThinkProgress in May. And while neglect, abuse, and the sale for slaughter may be relegated to a minority of the industry, that problem, like the other key issues facing the sport, is one everyone needs to confront, owners like John Murell say.
“I’m part of the industry, and I know many, many fine people who take care of their horses,” Murell, a long-time Texas horse owner, told the New York Times in 2012. “But we’re breeding too many, and we’re dumping them like yesterday’s trash when they become economically useless. It has to stop.”