By ANNE RUSSEK
The following report is a result of the commitment and resolve of Suffolk Downs racetrack to follow through on their no slaughter policy.
Sam Elliott, Vice President at Suffolk, is determined to do everything in his power to educate horseman that they must be responsible for the horses they race, and that sending them to slaughter is NOT an option at his track. Owners and trainers whose horses are found at slaughter auctions, or at direct to kill holding facilities, will be barred from the racetrack.
Late Saturday evening, I received a phone call from Gail Vacca who told me she had been contacted by Suffolk Downs. The track officials had received a very reliable tip that five horses had been removed from the track by an owner and trainer who said they were retiring the horses to a boys camp. Several quick calls revealed there was no such camp, and that the horses were headed to the New Holland Auction. Gail asked if I would go to New Holland and see if I could find the horses. Gail assured me that I would have descriptions, tattoo numbers, and the resources to purchase the animals. I told her I would go.
Knowing that I would need help identifying the horses, I contacted my friend Diana McClure and asked if she was available. Unfortunately, Diana could not leave her Thoroughbred training facility on such short notice, but she suggested a friend of hers, Amanda, (who is also a Thoroughbred trainer) could go with me. I left my farm at 3:30 in the morning and drove to Berryville to pick up Amanda. We arrived at New Holland at 9:30 A.M.
The parking lot was full of trailers and quite a few horses were already tied up waiting for the horse sale. I explained the auction procedure as best I could to Amanda, and showed her the layout of the pens. Amanda was not at all happy about the fact that Thoroughbreds from off the track would be in this place. I let her vent before we started our search.
As we passed through the rows of horses that were tied up, I took Amanda to the back of the auction where there are pens of cows, and today, an unusual amount of pens with ponies and minis. There were also several pens of horses, all of whom appeared to be grade or drafts. Amanda and I noticed that these horses did not have auction tags, and I told her these were horses probably earmarked for slaughter and would have to be bought privately from the kill buyers.
We then came upon a small pen, 17-A, that had four horses in it. As usual, we both could tell they were Thoroughbreds. As I have stated before, even in their tired , exhausted and stressed out condition, the Thoroughbreds can still be recognized by that “look in their eye”. Horses that have spent a lifetime being cared for according to a schedule are suddenly treated like yesterdays garbage.
Many of these Thoroughbreds have not been in a herd situation for years, and the cuts, scrapes and injuries they are subjected to by being placed in small pens with other horses is inevitable, and totally avoidable if the auction owners and kill buyers cared. It is hard to imagine how many hours they are forced to stand and travel without the option of lying down, and for those that have entered the slaughter pipeline because of lameness issues, the auction experience becomes even more abusive.
There were two bay mares, one bay gelding (with poultice on both front legs)and one gray gelding. I immediately noted that they had white auction stickers instead of the yellow New Holland auction stickers. The three bays had #’s 413, 414, and 417. The gray had a white #189. I told Amanda I suspected they were horses that had been sold the previous Friday at Sugarcreek.
The gray gelding was in very poor shape. The one side of his body was peppered with bite marks. He was very thin, he had a large laceration on his hind leg, several bleeding cuts on both front legs, and was not willing to move from the spot he was standing in. To make matters worse, the bay gelding would lunge at him and bite him without provocation. Amanda was upset and asked why there were so many horses in such a small pen. I explained to her they were in a kill pen and nobody cares what happens to them.
Fortunately, once we went inside the pen with them, they were more focused on us then biting the gray, and we were able to reposition the horses so that the gray had more room. We then read their tattoos and phoned the numbers in to Gail. Amanda was quick to note that one of the bay fillies appeared to have just raced since she had rundowns on both hind legs. (A rundown is when a horse burns the hair off the back of their ankles because their ankle is hitting the bottom of the track). This filly was later identified as Hopi’s Lolo and had indeed just run on Oct 24, 2008 at Mountaineer Park.
Since the Mountaineer Director of racing, Rosemary Williams, had just announced that any trainers sending horses to Sugarcreek Auction would be in jeopardy of losing their stalls, we decided that Gail should contact her and see if she could help us in rescuing the mare. As usual, Mountaineer Park offered no assistance, which may be an indication that the announcement concerning Sugarcreek may have been little more than lip service and damage control for a track that has a despicable history of sending its horses to slaughter when they are finished racing.
The other mare was later identified as Bachoquita, the bay gelding was another Mountaineer based horse named Flanked in Gold, and the gray gelding was Go Geta Job. We wrote down the details of their different cuts and injuries and went to continue our search for the Suffolk horses.
We walked across a cement courtyard in back of the sales auction to some pens that are in back of the unloading chute. We immediately saw five Thoroughbreds standing together in a pen, next to larger pens that held dairy cows destined for slaughter. Under normal circumstances the Thoroughbreds would have been freaked out being so close to such a large number of “mooing” cows, but these five were literally “dead on their feet” from exhaustion and stress. As soon as Amanda flipped the first lip, we knew we had found the Suffolk horses. Diana had typed out the complete descriptions of all five horses with their tattoo numbers, and we identified the five.
Jimmy the Gov was in bad shape. His knee was blown up, and he was extremely body sore. Four of the five had pieces of their hide burned from what must have been a very cramped trailer ride to the auction. Storm Up Front had an ugly hide burn above his tail, which also appeared to be from rubbing against the side or back of a trailer. Tiny Target, the gray, also appeared lame, but was not as bad as Jimmy. Tercia De Reinas and Arrested Gatorgirl had bonded as mares usually will. They stood side by side, heads close to each other, united as one against the noise and commotion that surrounded them.
We contacted Gail and told her we had positive ID’s. I explained to Gail the horses had no auction tags, and I suspected I was going to have to deal with the kill buyer to save them. I walked over to the sales ring where they were finishing up selling tack. I asked one of the Amish men,(Chris) who appeared to be in charge of the ring, why the five horses in the pen behind the loading chute did not have auction tags. He told me they were in the “drop off pens.”
I asked if they would be going through the auction, he said no. I asked what was a drop off pen. He told me that is where the dealers put loads of horses until they transport them to the next destination. Chris told me that New Holland charges a day rate to rent the pens, but has no interest in who the horses are, where they have come from, who owns them , or anything else for that matter. He also said that the dealers that own and bring these horses to the “drop ” pens don’t really want the auction to know much about these horses.
I told him I was interested in buying a pen with five Thoroughbreds. He said, “how much do you want to give for them?”
I replied, “I thought you just said that you do not know anything about the drop pen horses.”
He said, “I know who some of them are, you’re talking about the pen with the lame gray horse right?”
I said “yes.”
Chris said, “those are Josh McKay’s horses, what’s your offer?”
My first inclination was to tell Chris I wanted to negotiate with Mc Kay myself, but I could tell he was getting impatient and wanted to get back to the tack sale.
I told him based on the condition of the horses, I could offer $350.00 per horse. His response was immediate. ” No way, its $550.00 per head.” I countered at $450.00, he said $550.00 again. I told him I needed to make a phone call, and he said make the call and let him know.
I called Gail, who said she would call Suffolk and get right back to me. Amanda expressed disbelief that we were being railroaded, but I told her that is the mindset of the kill buyers. They hate the rescue people, they consider our love and passion for the horses a weakness, and they feel that extortion is what we deserve.
Gail called back and said to buy the horses. I went back over to Chris and told him I would give him the $550.00 per horse. Chris gestured to another Amish man to put some stickers on the horses, and to take me upstairs to pay for the horses. Amanda and I followed him to the pen, and watched him attach yellow stickers on the horses, and then another man (not Amish), came into the pen and attached green stickers to them. I asked him why he was attaching another set of stickers and he said he did not know. I told him I had trouble believing he had no idea what the stickers meant, but he insisted he did not know why he was putting the stickers on them, he was just doing what he had been told. Before he left the pen, he did mumble something about the USDA.
Amanda and I went upstairs and paid for the horses. We paid $2,750.00 for the horses, $165.00 sales tax, and a $58.30 service charge I have no idea what for.
By the time we got back downstairs, the horse auction had started. I couldn’t help but notice Ron Harker, the man who we had rescued Falcon Fury from at a previous New Holland Auction. Harker had the microphone and was describing one of the horses he was selling in the ring. I stood and watched several horses sell and it became evident that prices were down, further proving that McKay had “stuck it to us.”
Gail called and said that the shipper was on the way, we could expect him in about 90 minutes.
Amanda and I saw another pen that had Thoroughbreds with auction tags. This pen appeared to have several broodmares, a two year old, and some horses off the track. They were mixed in with Standardbreds and grade horses. We got some tattoos, and Amanda was drawn towards a bay filly who was clean legged.
Once again, Amanda was floored that anyone could send a horse to this auction, especially a horse that could easily be placed as a sport horse. Amanda wrote down her tattoo and hip number.
We decided to go back to the Suffolk pen and get pictures. While approaching the pen I noticed a group of people looking at the horses. They were reaching through the bars and petting the mares, and one of the men was telling the others, “these are racehorses.”. One member of his group asked, “how can you tell?”
The man replied” cause they have racing shoes on.” A woman in the group said she thought it was terrible that anyone would bring a horse here, and they all nodded in agreement. As Amanda and I entered the pen, one of the men asked if we were a rescue and were we going to help these horses. I told him we were not a rescue, and explained to him about the zero slaughter policy at Suffolk Downs and that the vice -president of the track had arranged for the horses to be saved from slaughter. The group errupted in smiles and said that was a good thing, and they were so happy for the horses. Several other people had overheard the conversation and were eager to tell us they had seen Thoroughbreds in other pens, especially the pen with the “gray horse that is all beat up and bleeding”.
By now, Amanda and I were both fighting to keep our emotions in check. We were relieved to have found the Suffolk horses, but despondent about the others. I told Amanda I had some money that had been given to me from my last visit to Sugarcreek , but I had no way to transport any more horses and nowhere to take them. About this time Gail called with the names of the four thoroughbreds we had first seen. Since Go Geta Job was a Thistledown horse, (a Magna track that has a no slaughter policy) We decide to buy that pen also. Gail assured me that the Fans of Barbaro, people who log onto the Alex Brown forum, would raise the money for boarding at a quarantine facility.
Once again I went back to Chris. This time I told him I wanted to buy the horse in pen 17-A. He immediately said “$550.00?” I said, “I don’t think so. I’ve been watching horses go through this ring that are rideable and sound going for less than $500.00, you already screwed me on the last five, and this bunch is worse off than the first five, I’ll give you $350.00 a head. “. Chris shook his head no, but said ‘I’ll go ask Josh, but I doubt he will take that offer.” I told him I would appreciate it if he would ask him anyway.
Amanda and I watched Chris walk across the ring and talk to Josh Mc Kay. A few minutes later Chris came back and said “$450.00, no less.”
I told him “okay.” This time Chris did not send me with an Amish man, he told me to go see Josh. I walked to the end of the ring and Josh McKay came over. He said ” you want that pen of Thoroughbreds?” I said I did. Josh said “$450.00 a head” to which I replied ” are you sure you can’t cut me a break? You already got me for $550.00 for the other group, one of which has a knee as big as a cantalope, and the gray in this pen is one of the worse looking horses at this auction.”.
Josh immediately became agitated, ” look lady, you either want these horses or you don’t. I don’t care what shape their in, $450.00 or forget it.”
I pressed on, “I do want the horses, but I still have to pay a shipper. Can’t you let me have them for $400.00?”
Josh said “No.” I said, “Can’t you even take off $25.00 a head? Even a car dealer lets the customer think they are getting some kind of a break.”
Josh just shook his head, “$450.00 or no deal. You’re the one who wants these horses, I don’t care if you buy them or not, there worth money to me either way.”
I told him that I had been at Sugarcreek the week before this group had sold and that Thoroughbreds were going for under $300.00.”
Josh replied, “So what? This isn’t Sugarcreek, prices are better here. I don’t have time for this, either you want them or not, I got things to do.”
I agreed to give him the $450.00 and he said to meet him upstairs in the office, he was going to put stickers on the horses. Instead of going upstairs, I decide to follow him to the pen. Josh walked over to a man and told him I was buying his pen, he told me to show this man my buyers number, and he grabbed a roll of yellow auction stickers #’s 122-125.
As we were walking to the pen, I asked him once again if the horses had come from Sugarcreek and he said yes. I asked him where were their coggins and he asked me “what do you mean?” I explained to him that if they already had coggins from Sugarcreek, I could save money by not having to take them again. I also told him that once before I had shipped horses from Sugarcreek to West Virginia and I had gotten in trouble with the WV Department of Ag for not having a health certificate or coggins. Josh told me ” that’s a bunch of bull, those coggins papers are a joke, just a way for someone to make money, I ship horses all over, some states have rules, some don’t. No one keeps track of that stuff, you don’t need any coggins; just take them on out of here.”
I asked Josh who had brought the horses to New Holland and he said he did not know. I told him I had never been to an auction where more money and horses changed hands and no one knows who anyone else is. Josh just shrugged.
When we got to the pen, he put the yellow stickers on, but no one ever put the green stickers on like they had for the Suffolk horses. Josh and I walked up to the office and I paid for the horses.
While I was dealing with Josh, Amanda had been watching the auction. The Thoroughbred mare that had been in with the broodmares, Hip #917, had been purchased by a kill buyer named Brian Moore for $275.00. She had been brought to the auction by Mike Simonelli.
About this time the shipper for the Suffolk horses arrived and I went to help him load the horses. While I was doing that, Amanda was on a new mission. She had decided she was going to rescue Hip # 917. Either Brian Moore has an ounce of decency, or Amanda has a talent for negotiation. She was able to buy the filly for the same price Brian had paid. All I know is the next time I saw Amanda, she was standing with her mare, clinging to her by the halter since she had no shank, with a look of sheer joy. We later identified the mare as Glenda Jane.
Gail called back and told me the fantastic news that the FOB’s (Friends of Barbaro) had not only raised the two months board and quarantine money, but a young woman named Stacy who has fostered horses for Christy Schiedy and the Exceller Fund was coming to pick up the remaining Thoroughbreds to take them to her Pennsylvania farm. Gail said Stacy would be at New Holland in about two hours.
By now the auction was winding down and Amanda and I decided to separate our Thoroughbreds into separate pens so they would have more room. While we were standing with the horses, we watched as the kill buyers filled their pens with the horses they had bought. This was the first time I stayed at an auction after it was over.
As I stood there and watched these horses for the last time before they were slaughtered, I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame. Any satisfaction I had felt for saving the ten Thoroughbreds was diminished by the scene unfolding before me. Horse after horse after horse was loaded onto stock trailers.
Josh McKay was going over his inventory and hollered over to us that he had a few more Thoroughbreds if we wanted to buy them. I actually went to see them even though I knew I had no more money. One of the horses was a big beautiful hunt horse. His tattoo was not legible, but his teeth put him at about twenty years old. I thought about the years of service he had provided for someone, the glorious days of galloping across green fields with a herd of horses and a pack of hounds. The joy he must have brought to someone . But for some reason, some irresponsible owner did not have the compassion to give this horse the dignified death he deserved. Instead they had sentenced him to the abuse and indifference of a kill buyer who would make sure that the last days of this horses life would be the worst he had ever known. And it was me, not the thoughtless owner, that was experiencing the guilt.
I walked back over to Amanda and we stood silently together and watched as the Amish began to move the cattle into pens closer to the loading docks. It was hard to imagine that our day could get any worse, but it did.
We saw dairy cows, their udders so full they almost dragged the ground. The cows could barely walk because their hind legs were impeded by the size of their udders, yet the Amish beat them continuously in an effort to make them move faster. Down the aisles they tried to trot, bellowing the whole time, spooking the horses tied to the rails of the aisleway. One large mule broke free from his halter and trotted into the empty sales arena. Amanda and I were the only ones who saw him break away, and we both said out loud, “run for your life”. I followed the mule inside and saw that he had found a bale of hay. I closed the door just enough so that he could eat in peace.
About this time a young Amish boy got into a bobcat and began cleaning the manure from the sales pens. He was very adept at handling the bobcat, but he raced the machine up and down the aisles, coming within inches of spooking horses who jerked and strained against their ropes in an effort to get away from him. It was a ludicrous display of insensitivity.
I began to wonder about some of the horses left behind. Was anyone coming for them? Would they stay tied all night without water or hay? I was especially concerned about two small burros. They were tied side by side, but no one seemed to be claiming them. There was no one around I could ask. I went to find them some hay and took it to them, which they readily began eating. Amanda did not say a word. At this point, the futility of my actions was beginning to hit home.
We walked out to the front of the auction and within a few minutes, Stacy arrived. We loaded the horses in short order, even though it was a step up, every horse loaded without a problem. We thanked Stacy and just as we were getting ready to leave, Mike Simonelli asked us if we wanted to buy the foal papers of one of the horses we had bought. I walked over to his truck, and he produced folder after folder of foal papers. I asked him where they had come from, and he told me some lady in New Jersey had a bunch of horses she needed to get rid of and he had picked them up and brought them here. Looking at the well organized folders with dated vaccinations and breeder certificates, I found it hard to believe that this woman knew her horses had all been sold for slaughter.
I would like to thank everyone who contributed their time and money to this rescue. It was very well organized. The pipeline to slaughter needs constant exposure until that time when the different state agriculture departments step up to the plate and enforce the regulations that are being violated every week at livestock auctions across the country. Racetracks like Suffolk Downs who have enacted a zero slaughter tolerance policy and who are stepping up to retrieve their horses that are found in kill pens, should be commended and supported by each and every one of us.
Racetracks which continue to turn a blind eye to the slaughter of their horses, and those like Mountaineer Park which implement inadequate anti-slaughter policies and are unwilling to save the lives of their horses when informed that one of their own is in a kill-pen headed to slaughter, need to be held accountable.
Suffolk Downs did not hesitate to take swift and decisive action to both save their horses from slaughter and to hold the people who sent them there accountable.
Racehorse owners, racing fans, and horse lovers alike, have now been afforded the ability to support and patronize several racetracks that have implemented and are enforcing humane retirement policies for their horses. We should do everything in our power to support these tracks and forego the tracks which have not yet taken steps to protect their horses from slaughter. We owe at least that much to the horses.