By Joe Drape, The New York Times, March 17, 2011
One of the largest private organizations in the world dedicated to caring for former racehorses has been so slow or delinquent in paying for the upkeep of the more than 1,000 horses under its care that scores have wound up starved and neglected, some fatally, according to interviews and inspection reports.
The group, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, is based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., just miles from the famous racetrack that annually hosts one of thoroughbred racing’s premier meets. For years, it has received millions in donations from some pillars of the industry. But over the past two years, according to the foundation’s financial disclosure documents, it has been operating at a deficit, and as a result has not reliably been paying the 25 farms it contracts with to oversee the retired horses.
For example, at the 4-H Farm in Oklahoma, inspectors last month could find only 47 of the 63 retired horses that had been assigned to it. Many of those were starving. The rest had died, probably of neglect, inspectors concluded. Last week, at a Kentucky farm that is also supposed to receive money from the foundation, 34 horses were found in “poor” or “emaciated” condition, inspectors found. One horse had to be euthanized because of malnutrition.
It is unclear how many members of the foundation’s blue-chip board of trustees might have been aware of the deteriorating quality of care the horses were receiving. But the foundation’s biggest benefactor — the estate of the breeder and owner Paul Mellon — in recent years had become concerned about the growth of the foundation’s herd after hearing the complaints of caretakers, and it investigated.
The estate, which in 2001 established a $5 million endowment for the foundation and subsequently contributed $2 million more, last December requested that Stacey Huntington, a veterinarian based in Springfield, Mo., evaluate the foundation’s herd. So far, Dr. Huntington, along with a local veterinarian in each location, has examined more than 700 horses at more than a dozen farms from Oklahoma to Kentucky and South Carolina. She found many examples of neglect and lack of support from the T.R.F. in her visits to the farms.
“We have dug ourselves a big hole financially, and we’re still behind,” the foundation’s president, George Grayson, said. “It’s been a struggle to keep up with the costs associated with a large and aging horse population, at a time when the economy and giving is down. Everybody on the board takes any allegation seriously, and anything less than positive circumstances for the horses are unacceptable. When we’ve been made aware of issues, we have responded quickly, and we will on this.”
The cases of neglect, while noteworthy because of the prominence of the organization overseeing the horses, are only the latest embarrassment for an industry that remains vexed by one of its most fundamental challenges: how to humanely look out for horses that no longer have any value at the racetrack or in the breeding shed.
The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation was founded in 1984 to save racehorses no longer able to compete on the racetrack “from possible neglect, abuse and slaughter,” its mission statement says.
It has been embraced by some of the biggest forces in the sport: the Jockey Club has given the foundation nearly $250,000 over the past two years, and individual owners — like Mike Repole, the co-founder of Glaceau water and the owner of the current Kentucky Derby favorite, Uncle Mo — have given sizable contributions as well.
Over the years, the foundation’s board has included some of the sport’s most influential owners, and the farms it contracts with have been homes to many of the horses those owners have bred and campaigned. Beam Us Up, an accomplished racehorse bred by Richard Santulli, the former chief executive of NetJets, was recently removed from one of the contract farms because of neglect. Santulli’s wife, Peggy, is on the T.R.F. board.
The findings of the veterinarian hired by the Mellon estate, Dr. Huntington, moved the estate’s trustees to send the farms money for things as basic as food. She found that some 25 percent of the horses have required some kind of urgent care, which the Mellon estate has provided, costing it “tens of thousands” of dollars, said Ted Terry, one of its trustees.
Dr. Huntington found that the foundation’s education of the caretakers and oversight of their farms had been poor. At one farm, Dr. Huntington said, the horses were being fed cattle feed that contained a toxic element.
Stacey Huntington, a veterinarian, said, “The horses are getting the short end of the stick from this group.”
“The horses are getting the short end of the stick from this group that advertises itself as advocates of horses,” Dr. Huntington said.
The most dramatic instance of neglect discovered so far, she said, was at the 4-H Farm in Okmulgee, Okla., where the owners, Alan and Janice Hudgins, would not let Dr. Huntington onto their property to inspect T.R.F. horses until the foundation gave them $20,000, a partial payment of what was owed them for taking care of 63 horses since 2005. They also forced the foundation to sign a pledge not to prosecute them for the condition of the horses.
When the horses were released, the 47 survivors were in such poor condition that Dr. Huntington filed a report with the Okmulgee County sheriff’s office. Her report included photographs of the malnourished horses, three of them considered starving. Nearly all of them needed urgent care.
Ms. Hudgins said her farm had kept horses for the foundation since 2005, but in recent years it fell into a pattern of falling behind in payments.
In a tough economy with rising fuel and feed costs, Ms. Hudgins said her family got tired of having to settle for less than they were owed by the foundation. She said they had done the best they could with the horses, and had informed the T.R.F. that some older horses had died.
The foundation ran a $1.2 million deficit in 2009, according to its most recent tax filings with the federal government, three times the total in its previous filing. Its inability to pay the agreed costs for the care of its horses severed a number of relationships with farms, including Claybank Farm in Lexington, Ky., which cared for up to 80 horses.
Interviews with farm owners, as well as e-mail correspondence they provided, showed the foundation was aware of its deepening financial straits — occasionally taking horses from farms where they had been well cared for and placing them elsewhere on the cheap.
Last September, the T.R.F. owed Out2Pasture Farms in Jamestown, Mo., more than $43,000, The farm, run by two University of Missouri professors, Zachary and Robin Hurst-March, is one of the nation’s most highly regarded sanctuaries for thoroughbreds. When the couple pressed for payment, the T.R.F. asked them to reduce their per diem to $3 a day and eventually removed 13 of their horses.
“I was being emotionally blackmailed to lower my per diem, and was the subject of retribution because I questioned the care of the horses,” said Mrs. Hurst-Marsh, who is owed $10,000.
When Gayle England, whose farm in Stroud, Okla., is also highly regarded as a special-care facility, complained not only of the chronic slow pay but the general lack of regard for the farms and the horses, 26 T.R.F. horses were taken from her.
Last month, some of the horses in the worst shape were taken from other foundation farms and returned to the Hurst-Marsh farm and Ms. England. In fact, one of the 14 horses moved to England’s farm with the help and funding of the Mellon Estate had to be put down.
“They were making their administrative payroll this whole time, but the horses they were suffering,” Ms. England said. “They need to be held accountable.”
Mr. Terry, a Mellon estate trustee, said he still does not know what went wrong.
“We don’t know if it was bad judgment, taking on too many horses or bad decisions made internally,” he said. “Eventually, we’re going to have to ask ourselves if we are throwing good money after bad.”