When Suffolk Downs trainer John Botty found out that Our Revival could wind up as dinner on somebody’s plate, he felt as if he had been punched in the stomach.
“Oh my God,” he says of the possibility of his former racehorse being sent to a Mexican slaughterhouse. “It would be like losing a family member.”
Although Americans never would consider horse meat as a delicacy, it is widely consumed in some European nations and parts of Asia. Since US domestic horse slaughter ceased in 2007, US exports for slaughter in Mexico have skyrocketed, increasing 660 percent, according to a June 2011 Government Accountability Office report. In 2010, 138,000 horses were transported to either Canada or Mexico for domestic and international consumption.
Botty’s memory of the 12-year-old chestnut mare is sweet. Standing inside Barn 15 at Suffolk Downs he smiles as he reminisces.
She loved peppermint candy, coming from behind in a race, and even kicking off her shoes to win, says Botty.
“She was like a street fighter. She mostly won off the pace. She didn’t mind dirt in her face, she relished it,” says Botty, who claimed her as a 3-year-old in 2003. “She was like Dustin Pedroia, never afraid to get dirty. Like Milan Lucic, not afraid to dig in the corners.”
But last month, Our Revival was one of 10 broodmares sold at an auction frequented by “killer buyers’’ — the industry term for meat buyers — in Round Mountain, Texas. She was rescued, along with an offspring of former Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, at the last minute, thanks to a tip from a spotter and quick action by a network of horse lovers over a thousand miles apart.
But she needed a home.
Botty immediately called an old friend, Michael Blowen, founder of Old Friends, a retirement home for thoroughbred horses in Kentucky.
“I said if you got a place for her I’ll get her out of there, whatever it takes to save her because she’s a beautiful animal. She shouldn’t end up like that,” says Botty.
Blowen, who knew the trainer from his days at Suffolk Downs before founding Old Friends in 2002, also knew the horse.
“In 2005 John Botty shipped the horse down here to Keeneland, Ky. He gave me a $50 win ticket and said if it wins, cash it and give the money to Old Friends,” says Blowen.
Our Revival won and paid handsomely. Blowen and Botty got their picture taken with her in the winner’s circle.
“That’s the same horse,” says Blowen. “What are the odds on that?”
Our Revival had a modest racing career. Out of 34 starts she finished first 11 times and won $150,000 in purses. She won four in a row at Suffolk in 2004.
She retired in February 2007 and was sold at the Keeneland Thoroughbred Racing and Sales for $20,000 to Keith Asmussen, of the famous horse-racing family. She most recently had a foal in 2012.
An Asmussen Horse Center trailer brought the 10 mares to Round Mountain Auction on July 7.
“Whoever spotted them was the real hero,” says Botty.
A horse owner, whose anonymity is fiercely protected, saw the Asmussen trailer unloading the 10 broodmares at the auction, including Our Revival. The oldest mare was 20 years old. Also present was Luxury of Time, the 17-year-old daughter of Seattle Slew.
With the auction about to start, time was of the essence. The spotter immediately called Deborah Jones in Huntington Beach, Calif. Jones has dedicated the last five years to identifying and saving thoroughbreds across the United States.
When the phone rang at 9:30 in the morning Jones was walking out the door to buy some paint.
Had she left for Home Depot five minutes earlier, Our Revival and friends possibly could have been horse tartare on the menu in Belgium.
Jones knew she had to act fast.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, there isn’t going to be much time.’ They were going to be run through loose at the end of the sale, very fast, without riders,” says Jones.
Riderless horses usually are destined for slaughter, not to become riding horses.
Jones quickly called Texas businessman John R. Murrell, a former board member of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and a man with a Texas-sized heart.
“I need your help,” she said. He said, “Well, I’ll give you my credit card.”
Armed with Murrell’s MasterCard, she called the auction as his bidding agent.
“It was pretty horrendous doing that because I couldn’t see the horses,” says Jones. “I didn’t know who I was bidding against.”
She was surprised how helpful the auctioneer was.
“I said, ‘Do the kill buyers attend the auction?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘I’m only interested in bidding against kill buyers.’ I had to rely on the auctioneer to tell me, ‘This is a kill buyer.’
“It was very nerve-racking. We lost two to kill buyers and we had to get them later [from the kill buyers for an extra $100 apiece]. It was a happy ending anyway.”
Murrell paid $4,480 for the nine horses.
One horse was bought by a private family.
“If the American people knew what was going on with this they’d say this has got to stop,” says Murrell.
“I’m against abuse and cruelty and the slaughtering of horses. The way it’s done in Mexico and Canada is abusive and cruel. There are too many horses and too many owners that due to the economy and other factors don’t do the right thing,” he says.
A hot topic
Although the ban has been in effect for five years, the political atmosphere in the US is shifting for myriad reasons, including droughts and rising hay prices that have forced increasing numbers of horse abandonments, according to the Unwanted Horse Coalition. New Mexico and Missouri already have filed applications to open horse slaughtering plants. Oklahoma and Wyoming are in the planning stages and Texas is having congressional hearings on the issue.
There are some surprising opinions. The Horse Council of New Mexico overwhelmingly favors a local horse slaughtering plant to stop the “needless suffering under the cruelest conditions” of transporting horses over long distances.
Congress recently restored US Department of Agriculture funding for inspections of horse slaughterhouses. That was the technicality that closed existing US horse slaughterhouses five years ago.
Tracing the long journey from auction to slaughterhouse is horrific, according to Animals’ Angels Inc., a nonprofit group that monitors animal cruelty.
Had kill buyers purchased the mares at the Round Mountain auction, they would have been placed in pens at Presidio, Texas, near the Mexican border, according to Sonja Meadows, the executive director of Animals’ Angels.
“One of our volunteers found horses in severe distress at the pens and multiple dead horses dumped in the area behind the pens along a dry creek,” last year, according to Meadows.
The horses then are shipped to Carnicos de Jerez in the Zacatecas area, 484 miles south of Presidio, according to Meadows.
Animals’ Angels visited the Carnicos de Jerez plant.
“Very emaciated horses, stillborn embryos, mares with foals by their side, and horses unable to rise,” says Meadows. “Most upsetting of all, we documented downed horses being pulled into the plant with a cable winch and a horse being left in the blood-smeared kill box while workers went for their lunch break.”
Rescued in Texas, the nine broodmares were spared that horror, but they still needed homes. Jones called Remember Me Rescue in Burleson, Texas. Founder and trainer Donna Keen was thrilled to help.
“I said, of course,” says Keen. “We will arrange the transportation.”
When Jones called back and said the horses were Asmussen mares, Keen was surprised. She knew the Asmussens and called them “good people.” But she thinks what they did is not right. “Nobody is going to buy 20-year-old broodmares in the middle of the summer. He should have known that,” says Keen.
Keith Asmussen, 71, founder of the Asmussen Horse Center, is a former quarterhorse jockey and father of two famous sons. Steve Asmussen is the Eclipse award-winning trainer of Curlin, who won the Preakness in 2007. Cash Asmussen also won an Eclipse award as outstanding apprentice jockey in 1979 and was a leading jockey overseas.
Keith Asmussen did not return phone and e-mail messages from the Globe seeking comment. He told The Blood-Horse (racing/breeding news) he had no idea the mares were going to slaughter. No laws were violated and no charges were filed.
“My granddaughters buy ponies and other horses up there all the time,” Asmussen told the Blood-Horse. “I wouldn’t have spent $100 a head to haul them to Round Mountain if I was planning on them going to the killers since I live right on the border [of Mexico]. And I damn sure wouldn’t have been sending registration papers with them if I thought they were going to slaughter.”
But Deborah Jones thinks his explanation is manure.
“I think that’s bull, he’s hardly going to turn around and say he knew there were kill buyers there,” she says.
Asked his opinion, Botty chooses his words carefully. In 2008, Suffolk Downs was the first racetrack to institute an anti-slaughter policy.
“I think a man of his position should have been more responsible and everybody in the industry should have been more responsible,” he says. “I’d say that to his face.”
Blowen located Our Revival at Keen’s farm. He offered to give the veteran mare a lifetime home at Old Friends.
“I was just tickled to death,” says Keen.
Botty called the rescue team “guardian angels.” He contacted a friend in Arkansas who had a horse trailer and had the lucky mare delivered to Old Friends. It was a tab he was more than happy to pay.
“She’s beautiful,” says Blowen at Old Friends in Georgetown, Ky.
“She’s a fabulous chestnut with a white blaze. She’s very comfortable with her big paddock and eating as much as she wants. She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. She’s already out in the pasture with her girlfriends and she’s having a ball.”