I'll bet you a dollar you have never heard of a racehorse named Orchard Point, unless you happen to use social media. But his story is one that has value.
Orchard Point ran once in September 2008. He was a 3-year-old that year, and he finished an underwhelming 13th out of 14 in a maiden claiming race at Laurel Park. That was the beginning and the end of his racing career.
So why am I telling you about this horse now, four years after he left the racing world behind? Well, Orchard Point fell on some hard times recently, and yet the very fact he was born to be a racehorse, even a poor one, is what ended up saving his life.
When he was purchased by a contract buyer (also known as a kill buyer) for $450, it was clear he had come to the end of the line.
That, and a perfect storm of quick-working people who used the technology available to them.
Earlier this week, the then-unknown 7-year-old chestnut gelding, who stands about 16 hands and has a white star, seemed to be sweet, willing and well-behaved when he was ridden through the auction ring at New Holland. But when he was purchased by a contract buyer (also known as a kill buyer) for $450, it was clear he had come to the end of the line.
That is until someone at the auction recognized that he was a thoroughbred, and therefore likely had an identifying tattoo.
Thoroughbred horses are required by most state racing commission rules to be lip tattooed to run in official races. The tattoo serves as an additional means of identification for the horse while racing and consists of a letter that corresponds with the horse's birth year as well as four or five numbers. Starting in 2009, the Jockey Club established Tattoo Identification Services, a free resource to assist owners and agents in the identification of thoroughbreds via their tattoos.
Because of that tattoo, Orchard Point went from an unknown to a horse with a name, a story and a history. It was a friend of Mindy Lovell's that spotted the horse, and armed with Orchard Point's tattoo information Lovell was able to spearhead a rescue attempt.
"I called [her friend] back when I found out who the horse was and told her to tell the kill buyer right away not to kill that horse or tag him for slaughter even though I had not been able to fundraise or anything for him yet," Lovell said. "I knew his father stands at Three Chimneys and Jen [Roytz] has always offered to try and help in the past."
Roytz is the marketing and communications director at Three Chimneys Farm, which last year made public its protocol for horses in need. Part of that policy, which is posted on the farm's website, reads as follows: "If a horse no longer owned by Three Chimneys, but that the farm did breed or own during any portion of its life is found to be in an at-risk situation, we will take care of or assist a thoroughbred aftercare organization in getting it into a safe situation, no questions asked. We also keep an eye out for horses by our stallions -- that we are not listed as the breeder for and have never owned -- who end up in jeopardy and try to assist in any way possible to get them into safer circumstances."
The kill buyer agreed to sell Orchard Point for the same amount he paid for the horse, provided the farm could find a place for the gelding to go by the end of the next day. Keep in mind that while there are no horse slaughter plants operating in the United States, it is also not illegal. There are some specific areas that have laws against it, but Orchard Point was not in any of those places. So although it is a career path I could never undertake, the man who bought Orchard Point had every legal right to have him slaughtered in Mexico.
Working with a limited window of time, Roytz began trying to track down the horse's prior connections, while Lovell turned to social media to raise awareness.
"I decided to go ahead and post for fundraising help for him on Facebook," Lovell said. "I had discussed this with some friends of mine and they were all ready to go and start crossposting all over. We have a new organization that we developed called the North American Thoroughbred Aftercare Coalition. The response was overwhelming, and I honestly could not keep up with updating where we were in the fundraising as the donations were coming in so fast."
In a span of 24 hours, Orchard Point was purchased for slaughter, spotted in a kill pen, identified, bailed out, and last but certainly not least, re-homed.
"All of this can be very difficult to explain as to how it all works and the speed it has to be done and the pressure involved," Lovell said. "But it is all worth it in the end when you know a horse is safe."
Currently, Orchard Point is at a quarantine facility run by Cindy Dawson near the auction house where he was sold for slaughter. Although he has some minor issues, Orchard Point is in relatively good condition. After spending a month with Dawson, he will make his way to central Kentucky and his new home with Elizabeth Smith. As it turns out, he will only be a few miles from his famous father, Point Given.
"I am told that he is quite personable and very gentlemanly," said Smith, who has only seen photos of her new purchase. "He has some rain rot and some scratches and needs a few groceries, but overall he seems to be in much better shape than many of the horses that come out of New Holland."
So why did Smith decide to offer Orchard Point a home? Well, chalk it up to good timing and surfing the Internet. Smith sold her last horse about 20 years ago after getting married and starting a family, but for the past three months she has been looking at available horses while considering becoming a horse owner again.
"I was perusing Facebook and saw Mindy's post about trying to get him out of New Holland because one of my Facebook friends, Canter Ky, had 'liked' her post," explained Smith, who has never actually met Lovell. "I am very familiar with the New Holland reputation, and even though I've never been there I've always wanted to rescue some horses from the kill pen there. I'm so often drawn to thoroughbreds who have such a grace and majesty to them, and I've spent lots of time looking at horses available through various thoroughbred rescues.
"When I saw the pictures that had been taken of Orchard Point as he stood in the kill pen and saw how many people were scrambling to raise his 'bail' money, I just knew that this was a special horse and that he was the one I should open my home to. So, I sent a message to Mindy via Facebook with my contact information and an offer to take him in. Without Facebook and its ability to network people together, I never would have known about Orchard Point."
Horse slaughter is a sticky wicket of a subject, and my object in telling Orchard Point's story is not to point fingers. As with most hot button issues, many people already have set beliefs when it comes to the topic. Rather, this is simply an example of how the power of technology is being used for good. After all, knowledge is power.
Orchard Point has been away from the racing world for a decent amount of time, and as of now no one is quite sure how he ended up bound for slaughter.
"I am hopeful that we'll be able to fill in some of those blanks eventually, at least in broad strokes, but there may be parts of his past that just remain a mystery," Smith said. "The way the various equine rescues and horse lovers came together to spread the news of Orchard Point's plight is a great example of the way that Facebook and other social networking sites can be leveraged to save the lives of horses like him.
"All of the people involved, including the good folks at Three Chimneys, are heroes in my book. I will never look at Orchard Point without being grateful for their compassion and concern for his well-being."
Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.