The legalization of gambling in Ohio is spurring newly built racinos, casino-racetrack hybrids. As a result, there’s been a resurgence of popularity in the Harness racing industry, and Ohio is now the second largest producer of standard-bred horses. In 2015, there will be over 1,100 standard-bred mares in Ohio giving birth to the next generation of harness racing horses. But what happens to all those horses once their careers end? Community Voices producer Renee Wilde discovered one option for these retired racehorses, and she had another motive. She was looking for a horse to adopt.
Winnie Morgan Neimath, Standard-bred Program Director for the New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program, shows off a horse named Gin.
"He was a pretty big super star on the East Coast, and really had a great career as a racehorse," she says. "I think he earned a little over four hundred thousand. Had over a hundred starts. And, you know, raced at the top of his class for a long time. And his trainer really felt like he would make a great driving horse and also a great riding horse so they chose to send him here."
I’m at Laurel Haven Farms in Southern Ohio. It’s one of six facilities across the U.S. used by New Vocations to house and re-train former race horses for a new life. Rows of stalls line a large indoor arena and in 25 of those stalls are former racehorses.
I discovered this non-profit organization while looking for a new horse. But, before I could even set foot in the barn to see the horses, I had to go through the adoption process. That included photos of my farm’s horse barns and fencing, interviews with my ferrier and large animal vet, plus references from horse savvy people who have been out to my farm.
"The approval process is lengthy," says Jennifer Daniels, is the owner of this facility. "We want to know everything about you and what your going to be using the horse for. This is a service for the horses first and foremost, and we want to make sure the horse is going to be a good fit for what you want to do."
Winnie and Jennifer take me around the barn and introduce me to the horses. Jennifer slides a stall door open and leads out a beautiful dark bay horse with black markings.
“Well he is a big money earner. His name is Big John B,and he made a hundred and ninety one thousand dollars racing all over the East Coast," says Jennifer who also says that Big John B came with a letter from his owner. “[The former owner] says they have had this horse for the better part of seven years. He’s twelve now. When the partners wanted to sell him, they bought their shares out. So obviously he meant a lot to them.”
Winnie says that’s something these horses have in common.
“The misconception is that the racehorse industry does not care about these horses, and that we’re rescuing them. And we are not a rescue. They are very well taken care of and very loved.
“There are a lot of people in this business that are hands on," says track veterinarian Dr. Scott McQuinn. "They do their own work, they train their own horses. A lot of guys have factory jobs and will come after they get off work and take care of their horses. You know the majority of people who are in this, it’s a family business. So they want what’s best for their horses afterwards.”
So why would an owner give up a horse like Big John B who’s earned hundreds of thousands of dollars? Well, a mare or a stallion is valuable as breeding stock, but because gelded horses can’t breed, they have little use in the racing operations once their career is over.
"The other option is to go to a sale," says Winnie.
And the primary buyers at Standard-bred sales are Amish families. Winnie says this is not an attractive option to most racehorse owners.
"These horses because they drive will make good Amish driving horses. And a lot of them do go to that. However, I don’t consider that retirement. And I don’t consider that a second career. Actually it’s harder being an Amish horse than it is ever to be on the racetrack."
New Vocations gives these former athletes and their owners other alternatives. Their experience on the track helps them become good riding horses. Standard-breds are surprisingly adaptable as both pleasure and show mounts says veterinarian Dr. McQuinn.
“They’ve got five years of training in them a lot of times. They stand, and their patient when you put the harness on to get hitched. Most of them are really sweet animals. You know there are probably some that wouldn’t make good pets but 90% them would be.”
At Laurel Haven Farm, Jennifer has found new owners for over 200 standard-breds since she started, averaging 8-10 adoptions a month.
I eventually choose Big John B and his stablemate Affaro Hanover. Affaro was a big money earner who had a bit of an attitude on the track, but transformed into a level-headed mount under saddle. Their adoptions open up stalls for two more of the 18 horses on the waiting list to get into New Vocation’s program.
Big John B and Affaro Hanover are now enjoying their retirement as trail horses. I’m looking forward exploring the woods and fields surrounding our property with them.
To see the photographs of these horses and view other success stories go to the New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program website at Newvocations.org.