Comment: Improving the lot of retired racehorses

June 15, 2009

Kathy Guillermo argues more can be done to provide a brighter future for what she describes as racing's cast-offs.

Every spring in the United States, as many as 50,000 thoroughbred mares give birth. Perhaps every thoroughbred owner dreams that, this year, a champion will be born. The odds are against it. Only a fraction of all these foals will go on to compete. And only a fraction of this fraction will become as successful as Charismatic and War Emblem.

Charismatic won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness - the first two legs of the Triple Crown - in 1999. But during the Belmont Stakes, Charismatic's left front leg broke in two places. Unlike Barbaro and Eight Belles, who were euthanized after their legs shattered during Triple Crown races, Charismatic survived. With four screws permanently holding his bones together, he went on to become a breeding stallion.

Just three years later, in 2002, War Emblem, like Charismatic, won both the Derby and the Preakness, lost in the Belmont and was retired to stud. The same year, both horses were sold to thoroughbred breeders in Japan. This was also the year (although no one knew it at the time) that another Derby winner, Ferdinand - who had also been sold to Japanese buyers - was sent to a slaughterhouse.

Fast-forward to 2009. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wondered what had happened to Charismatic and War Emblem. Occasional news reports over the years indicated that War Emblem, who had been sold to Japan for $US17.7 million, was reluctant to breed and that Charismatic's babies had had limited success. Where were they now? For that matter, how many other thoroughbreds had been sold to Japan in the previous decade and what had happened to them? We sent two undercover investigators to Japan to find out.

They pored over Japanese stud books and found that thousands of US thoroughbreds have been sold to Japan in recent years. One can follow their lives a bit by looking at breeding records, but they then disappear from the books. It didn't take us long to find out what had happened to them.

In Japan, where more money is bet on horse racing than in any other country in the world, horse meat is consumed by humans and sold as dog food. As many as 20,000 horses of many breeds were slaughtered in Japan in 2008. When thoroughbreds are no longer useful in Japan, they are almost always slaughtered.

In the Kumamoto Shokuniku Center, the largest horse slaughterhouse in Japan, 4500 horses are slaughtered each year, including 600 former racehorses. Here, PETA investigators captured the first-known footage taken inside a Japanese horse slaughterhouse. They recorded a thoroughbred's last minutes. The horse is sprayed with water. Frightened and uncertain about what is happening, he panics, slips out of his halter and escapes inside the slaughterhouse, only to be caught - and killed.

Perhaps the only thing that has saved Charismatic and War Emblem from this fate, at least so far, is their fame. Charismatic's breeding value has plummeted, and his stud fee has dropped to $US5000. War Emblem is regularly pumped full of testosterone in an effort to awaken his interest in breeding. While top stallions in Japan are bred more than 200 times a year, Charismatic sired only 22 foals in 2007. War Emblem sired none.

A thoroughbred retirement organisation has expressed interest in bringing these two horses back to America. Other US-bred racehorses in Japan aren't so lucky. When they're no longer considered useful, they'll be loaded onto a horse van and trucked to a slaughterhouse.

The racing industry is not kind to its castoffs - thousands of thoroughbreds are sent to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada from the United States every year. This practice could end with the passage of a bill, now under consideration, that would prohibit the interstate transport of horses for slaughter.

The American thoroughbred industry could stop this killing by refusing to sell horses to Japan and by curbing the overbreeding of racehorses. Each one of us can help, too: We can stay away from racetracks and refuse to bet on a "sport" in which the horses rarely win.