Call to the Post: Saving Unwanted Racehorses {With J209 Video}

Patti Shirley kisses one of her retired racehorses on her property in Tucson, Ariz.

Patti Shirley kisses one of her retired racehorses on her property in Tucson, Ariz.

Story, video and photos by Bridget Grobosky J209 Patti Shirley poured me a glass of water before sitting down in the kitchen of a home on her 120-acre horse property outside of Tucson. She adjusted her butterfly-print neck scarf and began telling me, without pause, the story of her nonprofit Thoroughbred retirement organization, Equine Encore Foundation.

Shirley began the operation in 2005 with hopes to address the growing issue of unwanted former racehorses that has come with the downturn in the economy and decline in the racing industry. Since then, her organization has grown tremendously.

“That year I started I got $5,000 in donations, last year I got $200,000 in donations and grants,” Shirley said. “Then I had five horses and now I have 70.”

A 2009 Unwanted Horses survey by the Unwanted Horse Coalition reported a 2007 estimate that there are approximately 170,000 new unwanted horses each year. This is an industry-wide issue, not unique to horse racing.

So why are unwanted horses an issue in the racing industry?

Money is an enormous factor. Shirley says racehorse owners can spend $1,000 to $2,000 a month to keep their horse in training so it can continue to race. And she says for every one winning horse, you can expect to have five or six horses whose careers do not pan out.

“A horse like California Chrome has earned enough money that he won’t ever have a problem. But he’ll probably have sons and daughters that do have problems,” she said.

The Thoroughbred industry does not produce an enormous annual foal crop, around 21, 275 new registered horses in 2013 according to the Jockey Club’s 2014 Fact Book. Only those foals that are purebred Thoroughbreds can be registered with the Jockey Club. This compared to the 60, 867 reported new breed registers for the American Quarter Horse Association according to its 2013 Annual Report, demonstrates that over breeding is not the main issue in the Thoroughbred industry. This is due largely to the fact that Thoroughbred breeding requires traditional live cover, where mares must be transported to studs. Other breeds utilize other breeding techniques like artificial insemination, which can prove more successful.

Instead, racehorses’ careers may end if they exhibit lackluster performances or become injured. Racehorses can be injured in such a way that their racing careers are finished. Shirley explained that they are just like human athletes that depend on their physical abilities to stay working.

“It’s not that these people are mean and heartless, but what are you going to do with them?” Shirley said regarding owners who can no longer use their Thoroughbreds as racehorses.

Retraining is an option for some horses that come off the track. Some can be trained as show horses or general riding horses. But Shirley said, “All they know how to do is go fast and turn left. Everything else needs to be taught to them.”

She said, however, that a lot of people will not spend the extra money to get an ex-racehorse retrained as a riding horse, when they can buy an already trained one for less than the cost of retraining. For Shirley, the financial burden of caring for the 70 retired racehorses on her ranch is a big one. She spends $2000 per week on feed in addition to other veterinary and ranch maintenance expenses. Shirley said hay costs anywhere from $12.50 to $15 a bale for her, and it’s been as high as $20 a bale.

“When hay prices were lower, it was easier. Now it’s very difficult to find a home for these horses,” Shirley said.

Equine Encore Foundation is a retired racehorse facility in Tucson, Ariz.

Equine Encore Foundation is a retired racehorse facility in Tucson, Ariz.

There are several national institutions in place that Shirley’s organization receives funding from to lessen the financial burden. One such organization is the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, formed in February of 2012. The executive director, James Hastie, says the organization formed to improve industry standards for Thoroughbred aftercare after a 2010 meeting of likeminded individuals prompted collective action within the industry.

“We really needed an industry-wide focus for providing opportunities for horses that either were injured or weren’t fast enough or just not suited for the racetrack anymore,” Hastie said. “We needed an organization to really focus its efforts on stimulating opportunities to thoroughbreds in retirement.”

According to Hastie, the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance gives significant funding to accredited organizations that it approves through an extensive evaluation process. The process looks at many aspects of a prospective organization including its efforts to educate others, its facilities, adoption policies, and status as a non-profit. Shirley’s Equine Encore Foundation is one of 23 organizations across the United States accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. Other organizations, including the Thoroughbred breed registry called the Jockey Club, have instituted policies to improve aftercare for retired racehorses. According to Shirley, the Jockey Club offers discretionary programs for Thoroughbred owners to support aftercare.

Shirley’s interest in Thoroughbred racing began at a young age with her neighbor who would rest his horse on pasture at his house. Shirley said she followed him around and learned more about racing. From there her interest grew into a passion. In 1996, Shirley received her trainer’s license and began racing horses as a career. Even after her training career, Shirley’s devotion to the Thoroughbred breed is shown through her commitment to the betterment of their lives after racing. She enthusiastically showed me around her sprawling facility, allowing me to watch her treat some injuries and telling me the names of every horse on her property and their unique stories.

Patti Shirley feeds some of the horses on her retired racehorse property.

Patti Shirley feeds some of the horses on her retired racehorse property.

She told me, “When you love something and you’re proud of it, you just want to show it off.”

Shirley said she built her career with a dependence on the Thoroughbred as an athlete, and now she has the opportunity to give the breed something in return and contribute to an industry’s shift toward effective aftercare.

“What these horses really need is a form of social security,” Shirley said. “And we’re trying to do something about it.”



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One Comment on “Call to the Post: Saving Unwanted Racehorses {With J209 Video}”

  1. Zig Pope Says:

    I believe we need to stop calling them “unwanted” and tell it like it is. Owner abandoned, trainer rejected, or something of that nature would be better.

    “unwanted” leaves the responsible party(s) off the hook.


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