05/05/2011 09:35 am ET Updated Jul 05, 2011

Thoroughbreds: From Elite to Meat

There's no question that four-time Super Bowl winner Terry Bradshaw is a champion, but, vested interest aside, why is he talking up an industry in which even winners are losers?: horse racing. Footballers can retire with money in the bank, but ten thousand castoff athletes who are thoroughbred racehorses in the U.S. will meet their end with a bolt to the brain this year alone. But first, they will have to travel in cramped tractor-trailers, all the way to Mexico or Canada, before they get the chop. For horses, who are high-strung and nervous to begin with, the stress of "killer" auctions and the journey to slaughter is a nightmare.

A few weeks ago, a PETA undercover investigator filmed inside the breeding barns at one of the world's most expensive thoroughbred breeding facilities. We documented a factory assembly-line regimen in which stallions "service" more than 100 mares each in a single breeding season. Nearly 25,000 thoroughbred foals will be churned out of those breeding barns this year alone. Given that only about 20 horses will run in the Kentucky Derby, where does that leave the rest?

The dark, dingy barns like those at Sugarcreek Livestock Auction in Ohio, provide a snapshot of what befalls the hapless losers. PETA undercover investigators who were there two weeks ago found lots of discarded horses being sold for slaughter, including a thoroughbred mare named Coming Home. She is the granddaughter of Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled and cousin to Eight Belles, the mare who suffered a catastrophic breakdown during the 2008 Kentucky Derby as the whole world was watching. Despite her pedigree, Coming Home was sold to a meat buyer for just $200. She was only hours away from being trucked to a slaughterhouse when PETA's investigator stepped in and bought her. Coming Home will at last come home to a safe and permanent home, on a PETA member's ranch.

Coming Home is no isolated case, but this mare shows that lineage does not protect a horse from a bad and frightening end. Because horse slaughter is now outlawed in the U.S., thousands of horses will be trucked out of the country, on an often long journey. Some will put out an eye, others will be kicked and bitten, and some will fall and be trampled as they journey to their deaths. Others who are spared that ride may spend the rest of their days neglected, starved and forgotten, as in the case of well-known New York horse breeder Ernie Paragallo, who was convicted of starving nearly 200 horses. Owners who pay exorbitant stud fees turn their backs on horses who are too old or injured to run or who are just not fast enough. There are too many horses and too few retirement options.

While the best bet for the horses would be to stop betting on the Derby and other horse races, and to stop breeding, racing and killing thoroughbreds altogether, who could disagree that at the very least, the racing world, which makes millions upon millions from horses, should provide a decent retirement for the animals it no longer has any use for. It's not enough, but it's a start, and it's not asking much.

PETA has made a proposal to the Jockey Club. The Thoroughbred 360 Life Cycle Retirement Fund would require a mandatory $360 retirement fee for each registration of a foaland for each transfer of ownership.

This modest fee amounts to pocket change for breeders and owners but would generate more than $20 million toward horses' retirement. It wouldn't solve all the problems and would require proper planning and administration. But without it, tens of thousands of thoroughbreds will continue to be shipped to slaughterhouses in Canada, Mexico and even Japan, where Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand ended up on a meat hook.

For the horses, implementing this plan is a matter of life or death. Terry Bradshaw, will you please stand up for them and be counted?

Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 1536 16th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20036; Her latest book is The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights.