COVID-19 Places Stress on Thoroughbred Industry, Aftercare

COVID-19 is hitting the Thoroughbred industry hard. The effects of auction and race meet cancellations, while unintended, are far-reaching for horsemen and the animals who fall under their care. One of the most concerning trends we are seeing is an uptick in the number of horses retiring from racing earlier than anticipated and in need of rehoming now. We expect to see significantly more in the coming weeks.

While The Jockey Club does not currently collect data on how many horses retire from racing each year in the U. S., Australia does and reports an average of 40% of their country’s racing population retires annually. Earlier this year journalist Natalie Voss, who writes for the Paulick Report and Chronicle of the Horse, applied Australian percentages to American numbers to estimate that roughly 18,500 horses retired from racing last year alone (read more on this and other statistics related to aftercare here.

While females with favorable pedigrees or racing ability likely go onto breeding careers, along with a handful of elite colts that earn their way into stallion barns, we can conservatively expect that approximately 60%-70% of that estimated number of retirees (or 11,100 to 12,950 Thoroughbreds) require rehoming for non-racing and -breeding purposes in a normal year.

Unfortunately, this year is anything but normal. That number will pale in comparison to how many will exit the racing industry in 2020.

Limited opportunities for horses to run have eliminated their earning potential and, with no definitive timeline for when racing jurisdictions will be back online and operational, horsemen face unprecedented challenges.

It takes a significant investment to keep a racehorse in training–on average, anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 monthly, depending on the trainer and location. It’s not hard to imagine that with no opportunity for a return on that investment for the foreseeable future, some owners won’t be willing or even able to sustain their horses through this waiting game we’re playing.

Retiring a racehorse is not as simple as it sounds, especially when he or she is one of many facing the same scenario. This is not the stock market; bloodstock is not paper stock. Horses cannot—and should not—be offloaded.

Sending a horse to an aftercare organization is a fantastic option. The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and Thoroughbred Charities of America offer lists of facilities, searchable by state, that they have accredited or approved. Additionally, numerous other organizations operate via a foster system through some racetrack horsemen’s offices or state Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Associations but do not fall under the TAA/TCA funding guidelines.

But, even in a normal year, all the Thoroughbred aftercare organizations combined, operating at the maximum funding capacity, cannot accommodate even half of those 11,100 to 12,950 horses.

That’s why the private sector is also critical. Throughout the country there are equestrian trainers whose business models include sourcing Thoroughbreds from the racetrack, retraining, and selling them. There are also countless agents on the backsides of racetracks—many who are exercise riders, trainers, or racing professionals themselves—who in their spare time help list retiring horses for adoption or sale through various channels, including CANTER (the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses), Facebook, and other websites.

In order to rehome these horses, there has to be a growing market of equestrians who want them—equestrians who are skilled and savvy enough to properly transition them into a new career, and who are willing to take the time to do so, rather than investing that time/money into a “made” show horse. It takes time, skill, and money to turn a Thoroughbred retiring sound from racing into a riding or show horse … and it takes even more time, skill, and money to do so for a horse with injuries or other physical/behavioral issues.

The equestrian world is also dealing with challenges. Horse shows have been canceled, budgets are tight due to widespread layoffs, and in many cases people are not even allowed to go to boarding stables to ride their own horses. In short, the market for Thoroughbreds—for any horses, really—is stagnating.

So, what can racing owners and trainers do to help their retiring horses end up in favorable situations?

  • Reach out to the aftercare organizations in your region (the TAA and TCA websites list organizations by state; CANTER, a national listing service, has chapters in 14 states; Take the Lead serves horsemen in New York; and CARMA does the same in California )—many offer waiting lists if they’re full.
  • Be prepared to support your horse(s) financially while you and/or your trainer works to rehome him/her, and set aside money to go toward their transition (donate it to the aftercare organization that takes your horse or consider offering it to a professional/private individual as a stipend toward the horse’s rehab or retraining).
  • Ask your trainer or the racing office who the aftercare agents are on your track’s backside and how to connect with them; social media is another useful tool for this, as many tracks/racing jurisdictions have Facebook pages that market retiring racehorses.
  • Disclose any known injuries or issues the horse has.
  • Most importantly, make sure you use a contract for any horse you rehome (whether to an aftercare organization, through a rehoming agent, or to a private buyer/adopter) that includes “sold as-is, no slaughter, right of first refusal/notification of transfer of ownership” language. This not only protects your horse by putting parameters in place for how he/she can be sold in the future but also, should the horse ever end up in an at-risk situation due to someone else’s poor choices, protects you as the seller by validating the horse was rehomed responsibly.

The Retired Racehorse Project has a classifieds page where Thoroughbreds can be listed for sale or adoption, and they are currently waiving all fees for doing so.