Retired Racers Find a New Track
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Rosey, a thoroughbred, canters through a left-hand turn like, well, a thoroughbred: head high, eyes proud, locomotive haunches driving ballerina legs. Round and round she ran on a recent afternoon, her trainer guiding her with a 10-foot lead in a steady counterclockwise loop. Rosey around a ring.
But when the trainer tried to turn her for some circuits the opposite way, the 4-year-old bay backed and snorted. In her former life as Calabria Rose, a regular at the Charles Town racetrack, no one had ever asked her to go in that direction.
"For a racehorse, life is pretty much 'Go fast and turn left,' " said Allie Conrad, looking on from the side of the training barn, which sits on a hill overlooking the horse country near Damascus. "A big part of what we do is untraining the racetrack out of them."
Conrad is the founder and head of CANTER Mid Atlantic, a Montgomery County-based nonprofit organization that specializes in retraining racehorses when their track days end. The group buys, or begs for, retired racers that would probably head to factories in Mexico and Canada that turn horses into meat. After a lot of rest and a little deprogramming, they put the once-skittish thoroughbreds up for adoption as family pets, jumpers or show horses.
"The personality of the horse at the track is not the personality of the horse at rest," said Conrad, a Web designer for Booz Allen Hamilton who started the organization in 2001. "I call it teaching them new manners. You don't have to be first on the trail all the time. You don't have to take off running at the slightest touch. We're very careful about placing the right horse with the right family, but by the time we're done, a lot of them are ready for children to ride."
CANTER Mid Atlantic, the local chapter of a national group, has retrained and placed more than 60 former racers in the past four years. With an annual budget of about $60,000 and a small army of horse-crazy volunteers, most of them women, the group prowls the racing barns at tracks in West Virginia and Maryland, looking for horses that might be near the end of their careers.
They've experienced an unwelcome boom in recent weeks, after it was announced that the track-subsidized training barns at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore will close in September. Dozens of backstretch grooms and stablehands will be out of work, and more than 400 horses will have to be relocated. Some trainers are giving up racing altogether, and Conrad's group has helped find homes for more than 2o Pimlico thoroughbreds, she said.
Sympathetic trainers and owners will often donate their animals, hoping that CANTER, the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses, will provide a retirement that doesn't include the knacker's yard. But sometimes the group has to buy horses from the auction block in New Holland, Pa., which is usually the last stop before the slaughterhouses.
"We got Rosey the day before she was going to New Holland," Conrad said of the young black mare. "She didn't have a very impressive racing career, and the trainer was going to sell her to the killers for $300. We had a group of women who put together the money, and here she is, the sweetie. She's doing great."
The process of getting a highly trained, impeccably pedigreed racer to discover its inner saddle horse usually begins at a 300-acre farm near Frederick, where each new arrival spends months and months doing nothing. Their high-calorie racing diet is cut by almost 90 percent, and they graze placidly, far from cheering grandstands and frantic jockeys.
"A lot of them can be a little mentally fried when they come off the track," Conrad said. "The first thing they need is to just be a horse for while, to stand around and swat flies."
When they have sniffed enough pasture flowers to be more Misty of Chincoteague than Man o' War, the horses move to one of three training facilities, two in Montgomery and one in Delaware, where CANTER rents stall space. There, volunteers oversee their care and begin to teach them some pleasure-horse fundamentals, such as carrying people who weigh more than 100 pounds and having riders mount using stirrups (jockeys are thrown aboard with help from a groom).