Union between KY horsemen, tracks shows evolving mindset on aftercare

Keeneland (shown above), the Kentucky HBPA, and Churchill Downs have created a partnership to generate funds for the work of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. Photo: Coady Photography.

At the close of the second Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit in March 2008, the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and The Jockey Club, underwriters and hosts for the event, released eight recommendations, developed by the working groups that participated in that summit held in Lexington, Kentucky. 

Recommendation #7 reads: “Find solutions for unwanted Thoroughbreds.”

Two years later, at the 2010 Summit, the fate of Thoroughbreds post-racing was still a concern, but the focus and the language had changed dramatically. Among the recommendations emerging from that summit was, “Transitioning Thoroughbred Racehorses to Second Careers.”

And two years after that, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Mike Ziegler stood in front of those assembled at the 2012 Summit and introduced them to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, the first industry-wide initiative to support the care of Thoroughbreds who could no longer race.

In the three years since that announcement, the TAA has brought together sales companies, consignors, Thoroughbred buyers, and breeding farms to fund Thoroughbred retirement, retraining, and adoption. In an industry that seldom finds common ground, the TAA is slowly but surely uniting its myriad stakeholders in a purpose with which few can quibble: making sure that retired racehorses have safe, comfortable, productive lives in the decades they are likely to live when their racing days are over. 

The TAA announced its latest initiative earlier this month, a partnership among Kentucky horsemen, Churchill Downs, and Keeneland Race Course, in which Thoroughbred owners who are members of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association will contribute $5 to the TAA for each of their horses that starts at Churchill or Keeneland, a donation that the racetracks will then match for the starts at their tracks. 

The agreement went into effect immediately. Keeneland’s spring meet began on April 3 and concluded on the 24; Churchill Downs’ spring meet started the next day and runs through June 27.

“There was no resistance,” said trainer Dale Romans, second vice president of the Kentucky HBPA. “Everybody sees the need. I don’t think that there’s anybody that doesn’t agree that these horses deserve a pension.”

“We met with the Kentucky HBPA in Louisville last November,” explained Stacie Clark, operations consultant for the TAA. “I give them a lot of credit for taking Kentucky by the hand and saying, ‘Let’s do this together.’ It showed a real sense of community between horsemen and racetracks, for the greater good.” 

Keeneland has been a supporter of the TAA since its inception, one of three organizations, along with the Breeders’ Cup and The Jockey Club, that provided seed money to cover administrative costs as the organization got its fundraising and operations up and running. Keeneland was also one of the sales companies that pledged to donate .05 percent of its gross sales to the TAA and to make available to its buyers and consignors the opportunity to do the same. Joining forces with the horsemen to make additional contributions was a natural next step, said Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason. 

“The concept of the TAA has always been,” he said, “that at every touch point in a horse’s life, those people are the ones responsible for these great animals and for the care of them during racing and training, and for the rest of their lives. 

“The partnership between the HBPA and Keeneland continues the effort to spread the message of collective responsibility.” 

In addition to accrediting aftercare organizations, which undergo a rigorous application and inspection process, the TAA disburses grants annually to the organizations that have earned accreditation. Through the end of 2014, it had granted $3.4 million to approved organizations. 

Its track record is part of what led Churchill Downs to sign on to match the donations, said Mike Ziegler, now executive director of racing for Churchill Downs, Inc. Ziegler also served as the first executive director of the TAA.

The horsemen’s contributions will be paid through the track’s horsemen’s bookkeeper, a procedure that required the permission of CDI. The request for that permission spurred CDI president Kevin Flanery to ask Ziegler, “Should we match these funds?” 

“Obviously,” said Ziegler, “I said yes.” 

Romans, whose horses are based at Churchill Downs, wasn’t necessarily surprised by Churchill’s decision. 

“Down deep I thought they would [sign on], but you never know,” he said. “It’s not really their responsibility, and they did the right thing.”

“We knock Churchill Downs a lot,” he went on, “but they did this right and they didn’t have to. They deserve to get a pat on the back for it.”

Beyond the immediate and financial benefits of the partnership to retired racehorses, the Keeneland/Churchill/TAA arrangement also sets a model for racetrack contributions that the participants hope that other jurisdictions will follow.

Trainer Rick Violette offered a frank assessment: “The major states have to step up.”

The president of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and its New York chapter, Violette also sits on the board of the TAA and was instrumental in the creation of Take the Lead, the aftercare program at the tracks of the New York Racing Association. New York’s horsemen have been contributing $5 per start to the TAA for the last year, and Violette hopes that NYRA will follow the lead of the Kentucky tracks and match the horsemen’s donations. 

Violette also noted that while a number of racing organizations have initiated their own backstretch retirement programs, such as Turning for Home at Parx, the California Retirement Management Account (CARMA), and the Gulfstream Park Thoroughbred Aftercare Program, many have not. 

“Some horsemen’s organizations are light years ahead of others in terms of aftercare,” he observed. “We want to see states that have not recognized the importance of aftercare step up, and the TAA is certainly the way to go.” 

“We’re glad to be doing what we’re doing,” said Churchill Downs’ Ziegler. “We hope that the TAA points to us as an example when speaking with other jurisdictions.”

Clark said that Turfway Park in northern Kentucky has made a verbal commitment to set up a similar program.

Owners are automatically enrolled in the program but may opt out by speaking to the horsemen’s bookkeeper where their horses are running.

“We’re not forcing people to do things,” said Keeneland’s Thomason. “When people learn about the mission of the TAA, it resonates with them and makes this a very, very easy sell.”

He continued, “Problems can seem so big, but these incremental efforts from small beginnings can turn into something that has a big impact. People in significant racing jurisdictions across the country need to find places like this to work together.”

“It’s nice to see them [work together] over the horse,” said the TAA’s Clark. “We all benefit, and we should all be giving back.

“The heart of the matter is that people really love racehorses, and this is the right thing to do.”


TRC publisher Charles Hayward is a member of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance advisory board.

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