SYKESVILLE, Md. — Being discarded — not just rejected, but thrown away and replaced with something younger, faster, shinier — is one of the scorching milestones of the human experience.
Or maybe for any species.
As the crowds in Baltimore knock back their black-eyed Susan cocktails and place their bets at the Preakness Stakes on Saturday, they will be watching not only Kentucky Derby champion Justify but a field of future slaughterhouse meat.
Judge Luci was out there.
She was track royalty, the great-granddaughter of Secretariat. But race after race, according to track records from 2006 and 2007, her superior genetics were outrun by Pretty Galore and Sue Me. Even Family Outing smoked her. The bray mare — 15½ hands high with a white spot on her forehead — never broke the top three, even when she was picked as a favorite.
The destination for a mare like her: the slaughterhouse.
Grim, yes. But at least 52,000 horses — many of them discarded racers — were exported to Canadian and Mexican slaughterhouses in 2016, according to the Equine Assistance Project. The Humane Society puts the number at closer to 79,000. It’s not easy to track.
What experts do know is that often, the horses are young and destroyed because they hit the track while still in the horse version of gawky teenhood, before their bones are fully developed. They may get injured, or simply not perform well, like Luci. And the folks who are supposed to care for them abandon them instead. Adios. And they move on to the next young thing that might win them prizes.
At 42, Chip Alger knows how it feels when folks are done with you. He and Luci understand each other, the looks of disappointment, the final straw, the goodbye.
“I must’ve gone through a million dollars in cocaine. Really. I was addicted for 20 years,” Alger said, in between strokes with a dandy brush across a horse’s side. “That’s after I grew up in an abusive family.”
Alger is an inmate at the Central Maryland Correctional Facility. He remembers going to the track during his highflying days. Placing bets on horses. At least, he thinks he remembers. He was probably high.
All those highs came crashing down when he was caught dealing. And locked up for three years.
Horses were something he bet on. “I may have been on a horse one time, as a teen, for maybe 10 minutes,” he said. He never gave much thought to horses. Never imagined that a horse like Luci — someone else who was skittish, scarred, who had a hard time trusting and being trusted — might save him.
But the methodical, meditative act of grooming a horse — brush, brush, brush — and the smell of hay and the gentle whinnies from the 1,200-pound creature have been therapy for Alger. It’s taught him to trust, to care, to take his time and to think several steps ahead.
“I meditate now. I talk to this horse,” he said. “I never believed in that kind of stuff.”
They’re in a storybook barn in the green, rolling hills of Maryland. It’s called Second Chance Farm, a place for six horses and four men, all of them discards.
In that kinship — the brotherhood of the forgotten — the men find things they lost in themselves. Trust, compassion, passion, structure, discipline, calm, caring.
And the horses — nearly all of them, like Luci, destined for slaughter — were rescued by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. The foundation has eight Second Chance Farms all over the country, all close to prisons.
The four men — all with good behavior records and nonviolent offenses — are picked for six-month jobs on the farm. They get there at 7:45 a.m. and put in a full day grooming the horses and doing farmwork, under the watch of a corrections officer.
They have some classroom time and a bit of teaching, thanks to program director Sarah Stein’s background in drug counseling.
“For the men, there are so many parallels,” she said. “It’s a very classist system, horse racing. Like some of the places the men come from.
“The men come here, and after being locked up, they don’t have a lot of self respect,” Stein said. And getting that self respect calms the man, calming the horse.
Anthony Payne, 40, believes he understands the horses.
“Someone always on their backs, that’s how I always felt,” he said. He was sentenced to eight years in prison for gun possession. His world came crashing down when he lost his job as a compliance officer for the D.C. Department of Housing, and he wound up in the system. “They’re a lot like me, these horses.”
Allen Booth, 53, is in a whole different world in the prison system. A fencing contractor with a nice house in Davidsonville, he landed behind bars after threatening a troublesome tenant in a rental property with a propane tank and flares. Attempted arson, 30 years.
He feels invisible to his former world. Forgotten, discarded. The horses remind him of his childhood, the sprawling farms around his old home, his old life.
“Thank you for talking to me like I’m, just, you know, a person,” he said to me.
It’s easy to forget what that’s like when you’ve been discarded.
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