Life After Racing

The Makers Mark Secretariat Center in the Kentucky Horse Park finds new careers for former racehorses.
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The Makers Mark Secretariat Center in the Kentucky Horse Park finds new careers for former racehorses.

If you have visited the Kentucky Horse Park?s Hall of Champions and seen retired racehorses such as Cigar cavorting in their private paddocks or lounging in stalls bedded knee-deep in fresh straw, you may wonder what happens to Thoroughbreds that are not famous when they are no longer able to race and are not suitable for breeding.

Secretariat Center. Courtesy Secretariat Center

The staff at the Makers Mark Secretariat Center can answer that question and introduce you to some former racehorses who are being retrained for second careers.

One of the ?graduates? of the center is Crusader, who was adopted by Diane Joyce of Tryon, North Carolina.

?He?s just a love,? says Joyce. ?Every time we go out he impresses me. I don't think he had ever been on uneven land, much less hills, but he handles it all in stride. He gets along with everyone at the barn?horses and people. He?s social, and sound-minded and brave.?

Joyce learned about the Makers Mark Secretariat Center through a friend who saw Crusader and liked him. She completed the application and approval process required by TRF, then made the long haul with a trailer to Lexington, hoping it would work out. Crusader had been at the center five months. The gelding had a lackluster racing career in Philadelphia, then changed hands in a claiming race and dropped off the records for a year and a half.

?He was skin and bones when he arrived at the center, and was still thin when I first saw him,? says Joyce, ?but when they brought him out of the stall, I knew he was the one. I have a strong connection to all my animals and I wanted to match up emotionally with another horse. I rode him the night I arrived and again in the morning. He?s a lot of horse but he was so careful with me. I loved the rapport from the beginning.?

She was also impressed with the center and the adoption process.

?I really liked the center staff and their attitude,? she says. ?It was very clean and they were so active and caring with all the horses. I would go back in a heartbeat for another horse. When I have my own farm, I will foster a pasture buddy, one of the ones who can't be ridden. They deserve good homes, too.

?I also like the fact that the center is committed to the long haul on adopted horses,? she says. ?In the contract I agreed to submit periodic reports and images, which I have done. There's an ongoing relationship with the center. Adopters don't buy their horses and they cannot resell them. If my circumstances ever change, Crusader automatically goes back to the center. I honor that, but he's my forever horse.?

The Makers Mark Secretariat Center is operated by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF), a non-profit organization established in 1984. TRF has found good homes for countless former racehorses who are either retrained or retired to live out their days in comfort. Today there are 1,200 horses under the TRF umbrella, so the word is getting out.

The alternative isn?t pretty. When their racing careers are over, horses that are not suitable for breeding are often abused or neglected. Many are sent to slaughter houses that export horse meat to foreign countries.

The Makers Mark Secretariat Center accepts former racehorses from individuals and horse rescue facilities all over the country. The horses are allowed to ?decompress? in the Horse Park?s green pastures, putting on weight and getting loving attention from the center staff and a cadre of volunteers

?We had hoped for several years that we could open a facility at the Kentucky Horse Park,? says TRF executive director Diana Pikulski. ?It gets so much exposure to all types of horse people, and we wanted them to see firsthand that Thoroughbreds are versatile and can do any sort of horse sport or pleasure activity.

?Finally it all came together,? she says, ?thanks to Makers Mark Kentucky Bourbon Whisky in Louisville; Keeneland, which has always been supportive of TRF; and generous individuals such as Penny Chenery, who bred and raised Secretariat; Mary Lou Whitney and Dr. Tony Ryan.?

Maker?s Mark issued commemorative bottles for three years, starting in 2003, celebrating Triple Crown winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. The proceeds were donated to build the Makers Mark Secretariat Center at the Park.

?We anticipate adopting out 50 horses a year from the center,? says Pikulski. ?It is very moving to see these racehorses as they make the transition to pleasure horses and pets.? Thoroughbreds can be retrained to do anything any other horse can do. Because they are usually raised in a hands-on environment from birth, they are very civilized and don't have the fear issues of horses raised by unskilled individuals.

The Makers Mark Secretariat Center has a close relationship with the Blackburn Correctional Complex, a minimum security prison in Lexington that has been caring for former racehorses since 1999. It is one of the TRF?s largest farms, with about 80 horses living on 100 acres of prime pasture. Inmates care for the horses and often establish strong bonds with them.

TRF?s corrections partners like Blackburn are great assets. There are several of them around the country providing vocational training for inmates while the horses get really good care. There's a low caretaker to horse ratio, which is great for horses that need significant nursing care. Often horses are sent there straight from the track and they later come to the center.

People in the community have been very generous to the center. The bedding is donated by Guardian Horse Bedding. Hyaluronex provides joint supplements. Sallee Horse Vans ships the horses free of charge. Many other companies and individuals donate money or sponsor specific horses.

Though it has only been in operation since 2004, the Makers Mark Secretariat Center is accumulating happy stories.

The first horse to go home with adopters was Flying Dragon, adopted by Jeff and Michelle Eastham of Greensburg, Kentucky, for their three children. The horse had been turned out at Blackburn for five years before coming to the center. Three months later the Easthams adopted Rylstone, a horse that had a broken sesimoid bone.

Rebecca Phipps of Georgetown, Kentucky, came to the center looking for a grey horse that would look pretty in her pasture and be suitable for light trail-riding. She saw two dark bays in the front paddock and changed her mind. She fell in love with Joe?s Big Boy, and also adopted Joe?s buddy, Breanna?s Babe, a mare who had only raced once, earning $35.

Celine Karabinos of New York spent a year looking for the right horse for her 13-year-old daughter. When she saw Saratoga Harbor, a gelding with a sweet face and disposition to match, on the center?s website, www.throughbredadoptions.com, she had the first of many conversations with the center, and began the adoption paperwork. Sallee Horse Vans delivered the horse to New York free of charge. He?s worked out great in his new home.

Fortunately, there are also people who are willing to foster horses that are not adoptable because of temperament, age or soundness. The center is always looking for people who have a little extra space on their farms where they can turn out a horse or two.

Horse lovers who cannot keep a horse can become sponsors, contributing to a horse's upkeep at the center until they are adopted.

One year, a young women who spent her summer working in the Hall of Champions asked her boss if she could put out a collection jar for the Makers Mark Secretariat Center. She raised $900 in donations from visitors who saw how John Henry, Cigar and the other champions are living out their days, and chipped in to help those less fortunate.

During the winter the center is open to the public 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Spring and summer hours are 10a.m. to 2.p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

For more information on how to donate, adopt, sponsor or foster a horse, go to the Makers Mark Secretariat Center website, www.thoroughbredadoption.com.

For more information on the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the Makers Mark Secretariat Center and other TRF facilities, go to www.trfinc.org.