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Wayne Pacelle Headshot

Not all Race Horses Have a Hollywood Ending

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The life of Secretariat, as depicted in the uplifting Disney film of the same name, is a great American story: an underdog beats the odds, defies the skeptics, and rides to glory. The movie opened in theaters across the nation last week, and it is dramatic and engaging even though we all know the outcome.

Secretariat spent his life under the watchful eye of a fierce and determined owner, Penny Chenery, played beautifully by Diane Lane. After Secretariat's unparalleled successes on the track, he had a chance at a second career. In Secretariat's case, that meant a long life as a breeding sire. For most retired racers, a second career might involve pleasure riding, competitive show jumping, or competitive dressage. Regardless of the chosen discipline, the hallmark of the Thoroughbred breed is a desire to compete and win. Secretariat may have been the textbook example of those qualities, but they live and thrive in just about every horse who retires from racing.

Secretariat en route to winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes
Creative Commons
Secretariat en route to winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes.

Sadly, too many retired race horses are never given a chance to prove themselves off the track. As long as horse slaughter remains legal in the United States, there are unscrupulous owners, dealers, and buyers who will seek to profit from the failures or decline of any race horse. These creatures, trained to trust people, suffer the ultimate betrayal when they are sold at auction, trucked in terrible conditions to foreign slaughter plants, and then killed and butchered for consumption. Indeed, considering how many hundreds of foals Secretariat sired over his lifetime, one wonders how many hundreds or even thousands of his descendants endured that horrible fate. Even his brother, a bay horse named Straight Flush, was awaiting the slaughter truck before being rescued by a benefactor who recognized him as brother to the red chestnut racing star. And though it sounds hard to believe, even winning the Kentucky Derby is no guarantee that a horse will be spared that terrible fate: witness Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 race, who was killed and butchered in a foreign slaughter plant after failing to sire winning foals.

Responsible race track owners and trainers continue to search for ways to improve track conditions and to reduce risks to horses. The best of them do not allow injured or drugged horses to race. A growing number of tracks and racing associations have adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward horse slaughter, banning any trainer that sells horses for slaughter. Other industry groups have dedicated resources to finding good homes for retired racers. The California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, for example, has created the California Equine Retirement Foundation, dedicated to making sure that every race horse gets a second chance at another career and a good, loving home.

As moviegoers relive the dramatic spring and summer days of Secretariat's successful Triple Crown on the big screen, we hope they will keep in mind that for most race horses, the story does not end at the finish line or the winner's circle. For too many, the story ends in heartbreak and tragedy. It is our hope that with the release of this fine film, the American people will reflect on the effort our race horses make for us in the name of sport and entertainment, and what we owe them when they step off the track for the last time.

This post originally appeared on Pacelle's blog, A Humane Nation.