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Who will save the horses?

(In the spirit of full disclosure: at various points in my career I have been compensated by the New York Times, working there as a freelance writer, and by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. I no longer work for the TRF and, so far as the Times goes, well, they seem to have lost my number. My wife is a former vice president of the TRF. She is no longer affiliated with the organization).

When it comes to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the New York Times, reporter Joe Drape and the thorny problem of old race horses going off to be butchered in a slaughterhouse, there has been a lot of finger pointing of late. I'm not sure any of it has been constructive. Today, four days after Drape wrote a story in the New York Times that leveled serious charges against the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and the TRF responded with accusations that Drape is a lousy reporter who badly misrepresented the facts, the industry is no closer to solving a problem that has existed for as long as the sport has.

Every day, horses come off the racetrack that aren't talented enough to become sires or broodmares. They are too old, too slow or too infirm to keep racing. There are thousands a year that fall into this category. Some find good homes. Some get neglected. A lot get slaughtered. How many? No one is quite sure, but the number is no doubt in the thousands.

For far too long, the horse racing industry's solution was to do nothing. The issue was rarely if ever raised and few had any idea that a lot of old broken-down racehorses were sent off to the slaughterhouse. It was the sport's dirtiest little secret, and a lot of people wanted to keep it that way.

That started to change in 1982. A New Jersey-based advertising executive named Monique Koehler, who, at the time, had nothing to do with horse racing, stumbled onto the fact that retired thoroughbreds were often killed after their racing careers and was understandably appalled. She's the type of person who is a doer and not a complainer, so she put together a small group of like-minded people and started the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which was then the only thoroughbred horse rescue group in the nation.

A year later, the TRF took in its first retiree. The days of sweeping the problem under the rug were beginning to end and some horses that otherwise would have been abused, neglected or slaughtered would spend their retirement years in a safe, comfortable environment.

In the ensuing 28 years, a few things have changed. The TRF grew and dozens of other groups were formed that were smaller versions of the TRF but had the same mission -- to save as many horses as possible. Most horse rescue groups are pretty much the same in that they are well-meaning, underfunded and do the little bit they can to solve a terrible problem.

What hasn't changed is how the industry itself has dealt with the predicament. It has never taken charge. Instead, it has relied on a bunch of small charities without a lot of money at their disposal to solve its own problems, all the while knowing that the groups, well meaning or not, were going to war with peashooters. The best the TRF or any group could do was save a small fraction of the horses being slaughtered each year. Collectively, an industry insider said, "It's not our problem."

That's not to say there aren't a lot of good people out there in racing. Either with their money, their efforts, or both, the list of people who want to do the right thing includes such names as Marylou Whitney, Penny Chenery, Nick Zito, Earle Mack, Mike Repole, Graham Motion, John and Susan Moore, and Jockey Club president and COO Jim Gagliano.

It is to say that the majority of people in the sport, its leaders and its leading organizations don't care enough to want to do anything about horse slaughter or the treatment of retirees. To place the burden on a handful of charities and then largely step aside was never a good idea, was never going to work.

I will let you make your own judgments about the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. But there's no disputing the fact that for nearly 30 years it has saved the lives of thousands of horses. It is by far the biggest thoroughbred horse rescue group out there. Now it has been critically wounded by a torrent of terrible publicity that will cause it severe harm when it comes to donations. The TRF will not survive this.

I am not saying this was anyone's intention at the New York Times but because of the reports a lot of horses are now going to die that otherwise would have survived. When it comes to slaughter, the problem has suddenly and dramatically gotten worse.

The only chance that something good can come out of this mess is if this turns out to be a watershed moment in horse racing. Solving the problem of what to do with unwanted horses coming off the track is actually very easy. All it takes is money, and probably a lot less money than you think to set up a Social Security-type program for old racehorses. If the racing industry can come together and finally deal with what to do with these horses and come up with adequate funding then, well, problem solved. Put together enough money and no horse will ever be abused, neglected or slaughtered again.

It will take money, but it will more so take a monumental shift in attitude. It should not be the TRF's problem or the problem of any other charity. It should be the horse racing industry's problem. Does the sport care? How it deals with the TRF issues and the stories in the New York Times will answer that question.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.