by Suzanne Bush
One of the horses Turning for Home has available for adoption is Our Wildcat, a nine-year-old gelding, who earned $486,528, shown here winning at Gulfstream Park in Florida. The son of Forest Wildcat won 14 of 71 starts, and was a multiple stakes winner. He is in great shape, just the usual aches and pains of a long racing career; but he has always had good, caring trainers and will make someone a nice, solid pleasure horse.
Thousands of horses in America join the sad parade of unwanted horses each year. They face uncertain futures, often circumscribed by abuse, hunger and neglect.
Some of these horses are victims of the declining economy whose owners can no longer afford to care for them. Some had been stars in disciplines as varied as thoroughbred racing, eventing and hunting. Others had led less glamorous lives as average performers in competition or as camp horses. Regardless of their histories, each of these horses deserves a better fate than abandonment. Unlike wild horses that are proliferating on Federal lands in the West, these horses were bred by individuals or syndicates. Too many of them slip through the patchwork of safety nets meant to protect horses.
That bitter reality is the driving force behind the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association's (PTHA) new non-profit organization, Turning for Home. "We began the planning of it in early February--maybe even a little sooner, because we had to perfect a business plan. We opened our door for the first horse in May," says Barbara Luna, program administrator at Turning for Home.
Located right on the grounds of Philadelphia Park, but sponsored and managed by PTHA, Turning for Home is unique in many ways. Luna says that owners and jockeys have agreed to put money into the program. "Every time a horse makes a start, the owners are putting in $10," she says. "Winning jockeys donate $10 for a first place finish and $5 for a second place finish." And Philadelphia Park donated $50,000, matching the organization's first-year budget for start-up fees.
Luna says the goal is to provide an avenue for trainers and owners to provide safe places and peaceful retirements for racehorses that can no longer compete. "Whether they're lame or sound or young or old, we take them into the program, with the exception of an intact horse," Luna says. Stallions must be gelded prior to being accepted into the program.
Once a horse is accepted by Turning for Home, his racing career is over. "The Jockey Club takes the horses out of the registry," she says. "We don't have to worry about any horse slipping through the cracks and getting back on the racetrack."
While some owners or trainers might be tempted to sell their horses at auction, Luna says that practice is strictly prohibited. "We decided that we were not going to buy Philadelphia Park horses from auction. What we did was, we called the trainers in and told them that." Luna says that at a general membership meeting, Mike Ballezzi, PTHA's Executive Director, informed everyone that taking horses to New Holland or other auctions was no longer acceptable. Trainers who are caught taking horses to such auctions will face some severe penalties. "We take their stalls away from them," Luna says.
She says that many of the horse rescue groups that frequent the New Holland auctions are supportive of Turning for Home. "If they flip a lip and find a thoroughbred that came from Philadelphia Park," Luna says, they contact Turning for Home. She says one trainer did manage to sell a couple of horses at auction, but the buyer contacted Turning for Home. The trainer was required to reimburse the buyer or face losing his stalls at Philadelphia Park.
Even though Turning for Home does not refuse any horse, Luna understands that some horses are beyond rehabilitation. She says that they rely on veterinarians' assessments of each horse's potential for a pain-free life. "We do everything very humanely, and are very upfront."
She said that her priorities are to maintain a paper trail for every horse in the program—even horses that get adopted from one of the rescue organizations she works with, and to assure owners and trainers that their horses are going to be placed in safe environments.
"We said from the very beginning, that once the trainer gives the horse up, if he wants to know about the horse, we can tell him what happened, where he went," she explains. "We try to do things pretty efficiently. I work with a couple of approved, non-profit rescue and adoption organizations," Luna says. "We will adopt privately to people, too, if people want to come to the track." She says that they need to ensure that prospective owners are capable of caring for a horse. "These are people we know, and know that they're bona fide thoroughbred people."
Luna said that her first budget proved to be pretty conservative. "My main business strategy was to accommodate 50 horses per year. Already we have 30 horses in the program, so I did underestimate a little. I would say that we're going to be averaging about two horses per week."
She says the support for the nascent PTHA program has been amazing, coming from Philadelphia Park, the industry, businesses and individuals whose hearts are in the thoroughbred racing industry. "Gretchen Jackson, who owned Barbaro, has been very generous, and she has taken six of our pensioners, that can never be ridden, at the end of the summer. She said she'll just take care of them for the rest of their lives," Luna says. "We need more people like that."
To donate to Turning for Home or for adoption guidelines, contact Barbara Luna, Program Administrator,
Turning for Home, PO Box 300, Bensalem, PA 19020. Email firstname.lastname@example.org