Over their combined racing careers the trotting horses had won almost $1.4 million.
At the final count, there were 40 standardbreds, mares and geldings, ranging in age from 10 to 24. They were bred throughout North America - in Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio and Canada.
Big cash winners, slow pokes or unraced, they all ended up in the same miserable fate last month: two kill buyers’ lots in central Pennsylvania.
Keeping them off the trailer to a slaughter plant in Quebec would require upwards of $30,000 just to pay the dealers.
That’s when the New Jersey-based Standardbred Retirement Foundation, the only non-profit organization devoted solely to saving the harness racing breed, got to work.
Spreading the word on social media through its partner, the Facebook group Save Our Standardbred from Slaughter (SOSS), the two groups made urgent calls over the course of a November weekend as the number of horses grew from 38 to 40 and the clock ticked toward shipping time.
In the end it was the largest number of horses the foundation had ever mobilized to save at one time in its 28-year history.
“This was unprecedented,” said Judy Bokman, who started the foundation to try to stem the slaughter pipeline for the breed best known for its ability to trot at blazing speeds. To date she estimates they have saved some 3,000 horses, including 300 this year alone.
When they got word of the group being prepared for shipment north, the foundation and SOSS volunteers put their heads together to see what they could do.
“There were too many to house,” said Bokman. SRF had already has made permanent homes for 156 retired standardbreds, so Bokman knew they’d need to secure foster homes before buying the horses.
“Buying is the cheapest part,” she said. Tens of thousands more was needed to secure transportation and stalls, buy feed and provide vet and dental care for the neglected, injured, ill or aged horses.
Bokman said she didn’t think at least four of them would make the 10 hour-plus ride to the slaughterhouse alive. “They would have had difficulty getting on a truck and going through the horrific trip to slaughter,” she said. “That’s really the most upsetting.”
Standardbreds, as a breed, suffer the cruelest fate. When their racing careers are over many are sold to the Amish who value their speed and reliability as buggy horses. They spend their later years being driven hard over paved streets until they break down or are deemed too slow and are sold at auction.
Thoroughbreds have a much wider and stronger network of advocates and policies to protect them from ending up in the kill pen, though as any auction regular can tell you they still turn up at New Holland and other Pennsylvania auctions.
Some thoroughbred tracks now implement a zero-tolerance policy on backfield-to-auction sales. Philadelphia Park imposes a fee on horsemen’s winnings that goes to a fund that supports retraining and rehoming. There are numerous thoroughbred rescues that watch the auctions, scan tattoos and “bail out” any threatened horses. And there is a concerted effort among a growing number of show jumping and eventing trainers to reintroduce the breed to American equestrians.
Standardbreds turn over at the track at a similar rate to thoroughbreds but they do not have the same level of interest among the show horse and pleasure riding community.
“Most of those in the kill pens are from the Amish who turn them over in their teens for fresh ones, as they say,” said Bokman.
Ellen Harvey, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trotting Association, said the standardbred industry has stepped up its efforts over the past two decades to help retired racehorses.
Harvey explained that the USTA has increased its advocacy and outreach by attending equine expos and the World Equestrian Games to educate the riding and driving public that standardbreds do more than trot a mile in a circle. “Thoroughbreds have a history of being ridden in the show ring,” she said. “We’re faced with building awareness that standardbreds are diverse in their athletic ability.”
Harvey points to the Newark Police Mounted Unit, which uses off-track standardbreds almost exclusively.
She said the USTA’s “Full Circle” program, similar to the one run by the American Quarter Horse Association, uses a database to enroll young horses. If the horse needs help later in life, those who signed up--breeders, drivers, trainers, even fans--will be notified.
The group also set up a fund, Save Our Standardbreds, to support agencies and 501C3 non-profit groups and shelters caring for standardbreds seized in cruelty cases.
Harvey said some breeders, have their own “social security programs” for their horses. Hanover Shoe Farms, the largest standardbred breeder in the country, has more than 100 retirees on its large farm in Hanover and provides lifetime homes for its breeding mares.
USTA also offers breed awards and a pleasure registry to recognize standardbred achievement in disciplines other than racing.
Bokman contends the industry group could do far more.
“There is no concerted effort in the industry,” she said. “It is such a huge problem you can’t continue to put Band Aids on it.“
Bokman would like to see breeders and owners set up a fund at birth to ensure safe aftercare for their horses. She said the topic was discussed at a meeting with USTA officials in October, but no decision or action plan was reached.
For now the fate of hundreds of standardbreds is in the hands of the highly active Save Our Standardbreds from Slaughter Facebook page. There, on any given day, or hour, volunteers are posting photos and videos of at-risk horses, while working the phones to find anyone connected to the horse who might be able to take the horse back or help fund its rescue.
The group’s page is a daily deluge of desperate pleas for help for each forlorn horse with an auction tag. Still the flow of horses from auction to slaughter is constant.
“It’s a losing game, we all know that,” said the SOSS page’s founder Helen Volshonok, who lives in New York City. She had no prior horse experience except that she fell in love with standardbreds and realized that, unlike thoroughbreds, they had little in the way of aftercare. “There is an unlimited supply of standardbreds going to kill buyers and auctions.”
She said there are some kind owners and breeders who offer to take back horses or help when they learn their horses are hours away from being loaded on a one-way trip to Canada. Others she said, say they’d like to help but their circumstances have changed; they got divorced or no longer have the income to support a horse. Still others hang up on them.
“A lot of people say, ‘don’t line the pockets of the kill buyers,’ but what’s the alternative?” said Volshonok. “Ship or sell, that horse is doomed.
Of those the foundation saved in the large rescue in November, several have been adopted, others are in foster homes. A 12-year-old emaciated Maine-bred gelding named Cash Moving died shortly after arrival.
Bokman said the size of this rescue is putting a strain on the foundation’s limited finances, coupled with the fact they do not have their own farm or an endowment.
“The concern is that several in the group need full retirement because they have an injury that prevents them from use but are happy in pasture,” she said. “A few are between 19 and 21 and still have plenty of years to give someone under saddle, but some people shy off.
"We are very close to saying no when a horse is in need because we cannot take more on without help,” Bokman said. “We certainly cannot afford to retire any more for life.”
For information on adoption and foster care or to contribute to the Standardbred Retirement Foundation, visit their website https://www.adoptahorse.org/donate.
Amy Worden is a career journalist who spent 15 years as a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer where she covered politics and animal issues and founded Philly Dawg pet blog.