As the global glitterati descend on Louisville’s Churchill Downs today for the most exciting two minutes in sports, it’s instructive to remember an earlier Run for the Roses nearly three decades ago.
The 1986 Kentucky Derby was a sentimental, even magical affair, as the legendary 54-year-old jockey Willie Shoemaker finally captured the only major racing prize that had eluded him—the winner’s circle rose garland. The Shoe had steered Ferdinand, a 17-1 long shot California three-year-old, from last place through a heavy traffic jam in the stretch, to a 2-¼ length victory at the wire. Ferdinand emerged as a national figure, later sealing his own legend with an historic photo finish Breeders’ Classic upset over the mighty Alysheba, clinching Horse of the Year honors in 1987.
It’s also instructive to consider the retirement arc of that champion thoroughbred. After only modest success at breeding talented offspring—Ferdinand was apparently a fighter, not a lover—he was sold to Japanese interests in 1994. In 2002, at the relatively young age of 19, he was “disposed of” in a Japanese slaughterhouse. While Ferdinand might have wound up as a gourmet steak at an upscale Tokyo restaurant, the most likely fate of this elite athlete was in the form of processed pet food.
No other Derby winner has met the same despicable demise. In fact, since this tragedy was exposed, many sales contracts for prized stallions now include a “Ferdinand clause,” enabling the seller to repurchase a horse after his career at stud is complete.
Every year, however, an estimated 150,000 U.S. horses are sent to Canadian or Mexican slaughterhouses to feed horse-hungry palates in Europe, South America, and Asia. More than 10,000 of them are thoroughbreds.
At the center of this practice are middlemen known as “kill buyers,” whose profitable profession consists of gathering up horses for slaughter and then transporting them across the U.S. border. They purport to offer a valuable service to the industry: With the sport of racing in serious economic distress, kill buyers provide financial recompense to struggling owners, and profess to provide a more humane alternative to the abandonment and slow starvation of unwanted horses.
But mercy killing it’s not. Horses are hauled to their death in long transports to Mexico or Canada, often with only very minimal food, water, or sleep. The slaughtering process can be deeply gruesome—in some reported cases, horses experience excruciating pain while partially conscious as they are bled out and then dismembered.
And in all-too-common cases when an international slaughterhouse deal goes bad, the kill buyers themselves will routinely abandon horses to which they’ve been entrusted. In one disheartening instance this year, described by the equine investigator as “the worst case of animal cruelty I’ve seen,” a kill buyer in Pendleton County, Ky., was charged with 15 counts of animal cruelty after examiners found 49 dead carcasses and 15 severely emaciated, barely alive horses on his property. Another kill buyer in nearby Mason County was charged last year with second-degree animal cruelty when 16 dead horses were found improperly disposed of on his land.
It doesn’t take a vegan-swearing, leather-protesting PETA activist to be disturbed. Particularly here in the Bluegrass State, we have a special bond with the gallant steed—akin to that of a beloved family pet—who we name, groom, feed, nurture, ride, cherish, and celebrate. That other cultures find their meat appetizing is nauseating; the brutal and macabre process that leads them to the dinner table is infuriating.
It’s also a matter of simple economics. Horse racing is responsible for more than 100,000 jobs and a $4 billion economic impact in Kentucky alone. And a 2011 report commissioned by the industry vanguard Jockey Club revealed that the recent steep decline in fan support for the sport—particularly among younger Americans—is in appreciable part due to concerns over animal safety and welfare.
Of course, declining revenues lead to more desperate owners who view kill buyers as a financial lifeline. This vicious circle can only be interrupted if this vicious practice is prohibited.
Fortunately, the anti-slaughter movement has been buoyed by the activism of a powerful ally: the thoroughbred industry itself. Just as with the battle against the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the sport, leading breeders, owners and enthusiasts have argued that for racing to rebound from its decades-long decline, a focus on the sanctity of the horse itself is in order.
Both Churchill Downs and Lexington’s Keeneland have joined a growing number of national racetracks who’ve enacted stringent anti-slaughter policies that impose penalties—including race bans—on anyone who is caught selling a horse to a slaughterhouse or to an intermediary auction. Thoroughbred enthusiasts have developed organizations that adopt and protect unwanted horses—such as Georgetown’s nationally-lauded Old Friends home—and provide a dignified retirement to thoroughbreds after their profitable years have ended. The prestigious and influential National Thoroughbred Racing Association has instituted a variety of horse-protection programs that promote the rescue of horses that are in danger of cruel disposal.
Voluntary industry action, though, has its limits. Banning horse slaughter, and the practices that facilitate it, requires federal legislation. While no permanent law prohibits horse slaughter in the U.S., Congress has overwhelmingly passed a series of spending bills since 2007 that have effectively shuttered domestic slaughterhouses (a rare cause embraced by both President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell).
However, efforts to ban the export of horses for slaughter abroad have continually failed. Some reform advocates charge Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid with running interference for Nevada cattlemen who find the practice a convenient way to rid their lands of wild horses.
But with a less powerful, lame duck Reid ambling toward his own retirement, legislation introduced last week could finally extinguish the practice. The Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act, H.R. 1942, would prohibit the transport of American horses for human consumption abroad, while also permanently forbidding the reestablishment of slaughterhouses in the U.S. As its title reveals, the bill is shrewdly promoted as a food safety initiative: Unlike cattle and poultry, horses are not raised to be consumed—there’s no FDA oversight to prohibit the use of drugs that could be toxic to people—so the practice poses severe human health risks in the U.S. and abroad. The bill already boasts broad bi-partisan support in the House, with 41 original co-sponsors.
Of course, in our polarized and paralyzed political system, the passage of any legislation faces dark horse odds. But as the industry continues to recognize that its future is dependent on the public’s trust, popular support could ensure legislative reform. Best of all, a meaningful focus on the noble animal itself could one day reinstall horse racing to its rightful place as the sport of kings.