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Beasts of Burden: What happens to thoroughbred racehorses after retirement

Thoroughbred horses might be pampered while young and agile, but it's not all lush pastures once they retire from racing.

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By Laura Ann Mullane
Sunday, May 30, 2010

I'm galloping my thoroughbred through the Maryland hills. It's late spring, so the shadows are getting shorter, finally surrendering to the advancing light. I'm out of the saddle, standing in my stirrups, letting my horse roll beneath me. I gradually reach my arms forward to lengthen the reins, to give his head and neck more freedom, to give him the chance to find his own balance, to find that space between the tame and the wild. But I have to be careful. He wants to run. Everything in his breeding and training until a few months ago tells him to run as fast as he possibly can.

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But now things are different. I come along -- this strange woman who's at least four inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than any jockey who ever sat on his back. This woman who keeps asking him to slow down. This woman who says "Easy, easy" in a voice so low and soft it sounds like a prayer. Maybe it is.

State Deputy was a thoroughbred born with promise. Foaled in Kentucky in 2001, he was a son of the great stallion Deputy Minister, who won more than half his races and whose stud fee that year was $150,000. State Deputy was sold as a 2-year-old at the esteemed Keeneland, Ky., auction for $75,000.

Three years later, I bought him for $650. By then, he was 200 pounds underweight. His ribs poked through a patchy coat that was riddled with scabs from a skin infection called rain rot. His hooves were the equivalent of tires with their tread worn bare. He had run 21 races -- never winning a single one. His career earnings totaled a paltry $11,539. In his final race, the comment on his race record stated simply, "No factor."

Just because he was slow didn't mean he was without potential. I bought State Deputy to be my partner in the sport of eventing, which requires the same horse and rider pair to compete in dressage (where the rider must guide the horse through a complex series of patterns at varied gaits using subtle leg and rein cues), cross-country jumping and stadium jumping. Thoroughbreds excel at eventing and have dominated its upper levels for years. I wanted to reach those levels, so it made sense to buy a thoroughbred. But money was an issue. A successful upper-level event horse can cost as much as $30,000, and I didn't have that kind of cash to drop on my hobby. In contrast, most off-the-track thoroughbreds sell for $2,000 to $6,000. When Rebecca Roach, my trainer and the owner of Moon Rising Farm in Boyds, called in February 2006 to say she'd found a horse that cost just $650, I asked, disbelieving, "Does he have all four legs?"

She laughed. "Apparently," she said.

"Then why is he so cheap?"

"You'll learn soon enough that off-the-track thoroughbreds are a dime a dozen," she said. "More need homes than can find them."

She was right. I would learn it -- sooner than I expected.

***

Like most Americans, I knew little about horseracing. I grew up a horse-crazy kid in a decidedly non-horse-loving family. My fierce passion was sustained only by periodic visits to my uncle's ranch in Texas, where I would spend hours riding his horses bareback across the plains. I didn't start riding seriously until I was an adult and then focused on learning dressage and jumping. My exposure to racing was limited to watching the Triple Crown races on TV each spring.

I had always assumed that most racehorses retired to a life as a stud or broodmare, or were sold at high prices as sport horses. But State Deputy's price tag made me wonder: What happens to the majority of these thoroughbreds once their racing days are over?


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