For more than a month, thoroughbred horse racing, like many other industries, has been mostly shut down. Bettors are homebound. Just five thoroughbred tracks nationwide are racing, but without spectators. Thousands of employees have been furloughed.
But there are other victims — the four-legged ones — and there may be no return to work for many of them.
Thousands of racehorses have been idled since the coronavirus pandemic overtook the country in mid-March. When thoroughbreds cannot compete, there is no prize money to pay owners, trainers, jockeys, and stable hands, or to pay for room and board. That includes Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby will not be held Saturday.
In the American imagination, racehorses are majestic, noble, strong, smart. But they are also commodities that are fast losing value. Owners who live hand to mouth — and many do — are trying to sell them into a down market.
For some thoroughbreds, the slaughterhouse could await.
Of the estimated 46,000 thoroughbreds racing at American tracks in a normal year, between 11,000 and 13,000 are retired and need new homes. That number is already headed skyward because of the pandemic.
Curry Eversole, who owns Triple R Horse Rescue in Cave Creek, Ariz., said his phone has been “blowing up” in the last month with owners who can’t afford their racehorses anymore, and want him to give them a home.
Eversole said he’d like to take in more horses but cannot because he’s already operating at a $30,000 loss from March into April.
To many, the plight of the horses mirrors that of the industry itself, which is sinking in public esteem after the deaths of 56 horses at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif., from mid 2018 to 2019. The deaths, there and elsewhere, have led to a public outcry, and calls to ban the sport outright.
Susan Kayne, who runs the Unbridled Thoroughbred Foundation in New York, said she worries what could happen to horses as funds are depleted for trainers and owners. She fears this may further feed the pipeline of horses headed for slaughterhouses.
The people who supply slaughterhouses are known as “kill buyers” because they purchase horses at US auctions — including thoroughbreds — and ship them to Mexico and Canada. While the United States closed its last horse slaughterhouse in 2007, it remains legal to ship them to be killed for food in other countries. Legislation to ban the export of horses for slaughter was filed last year, but is stalled in Congress.
The number of US horses shipped for slaughter has decreased substantially over the past decade, partly because a robust economy has made it possible for people to afford the cost of upkeep, according to Valerie Pringle, who directs a program to protect horses at the Humane Society of the United States. Even so, 54,157 horses of all types were exported just to Mexico for slaughter last year, according to federal government data.
“Horses are very vulnerable to the state of the economy because they’re so expensive to care for,” Pringle said. “When the economy changes, it always affects the most vulnerable or, in this case, the most expensive to care for.”
Josh Holland, president of the Equine Welfare Alliance, said racehorses typically compete for only three years, then someone else has to care for them for the next 20-30 years.
“That’s what the racing industry does,” he said. “They break them down.”
Owner and trainer Pete Scalcione, who has been in the business for 30 years, said concerns that many horses might be killed are valid. But he said he won’t let it happen to Featherstone, the racehorse he is selling because he can no longer afford the upkeep.
Featherstone’s splotchy light gray coat consumes the bulk of her body, darkening down the four sturdy legs that carried her through 19 career starts. Scalcione, who is at Fairmount Park Race Track in Collinsville, Ill., was preparing to race Featherstone when the industry came to a standstill.
“There’s an old saying in horse racing, ‘Never fall in love with your horses,' '' Scalcione said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people do.”
As owners prepare to say goodbye to their horses, rescues and charities are trying to figure out just how many horses will be needing a new home this year. Regardless of the increase, they’re sure of one thing: There isn’t enough space, even in a normal year.
Jen Roytz, executive director of the Retired Racehorse Project, estimated that even if all thoroughbred aftercare organizations nationwide had full funding, they wouldn’t be able to accommodate half of the horses that need re-homing in a typical year.
The Retired Racehorse Project receives almost one-third of its funding from the racing industry, according to Roytz. So with all but five tracks closed to thoroughbred racing, rescue operations like hers fear funding will soon dry up, even as needs increase.
To make matters even worse, rescue organizations typically act as adoption agencies, finding new owners for retired racehorses. Increasingly, however, new owners are returning adopted horses because they cannot afford the upkeep.
Horses may be safe from being sold or turned over to rescues if racing returns soon, but when that will happen is difficult to predict.
Some tracks, such as Turf Paradise in Phoenix, were nearing the end of their season when the pandemic hit. In a normal year, those horses would continue their season at tracks that begin their seasons in the spring.
Turf Paradise is scrambling to shut down completely by May 10, after its annual racing season ended early on March 14 because of the coronavirus. But on Thursday, it still had 540 horses on site, with owners scrambling to sell or move their thoroughbreds.
Vincent Francia, the track’s general manager, said he will keep stables open until May 10. In the interim, the boarding costs are being paid by the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.
And relocating each racehorse is expensive — about $1,000 from Turf Paradise to Canterbury Downs in Minnesota, where many of the horses race in the summer.
Francia said he is looking for Arizona ranchers, or county fairgrounds, who might be willing to take horses to graze.
For those trying to sell horses, like Scalcione, the costs continue to mount: He still goes to the barn daily to care for Featherstone and six other horses, all the while eager to have them pile up winnings again, but frustrated at the thought it might not happen.
“If it continues any longer,’’ Scalcione said, “it’s going to destroy horse racing as we know it in the United States.”
Shaena Montanari and Jill Ryan contributed reporting. This story was prepared for a graduate course in investigative reporting at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.