This morning, I present a guest post from Melanie Sue Bowles. Melanie is the founder of Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary, one of the nation’s oldest and most successful privately-run organizations for horses. Melanie has also authored three nonfiction books on the hundreds of animals who have found their way to the sanctuary. She is, in short, a true expert on equine nature, and I am grateful for her contribution.

“Rich Strike and the Systemic Barbarism of Horseracing”
by Melanie Sue Bowles

The 148th running of the Kentucky Derby. A come-from-behind 3y/o colt, Rich Strike, won. What transpired as he was being led to the winner’s circle by outrider Greg Blasi was a revealing display of the systemic barbarism in the Thoroughbred racing industry.

This is not a reference to the cognitive dissonance from racing enthusiasts: apparently, it’s acceptable or at least “normal” for jockeys to beat their horse to get them over the finish line, but it’s not okay for the horses to be beaten once they’ve crossed it, as evidenced by the outrage on social media. Regarding Blasi punching the fractious colt? Was Blasi right? Was he wrong? Did his actions escalate or deescalate the dangerous situation? I wasn’t there and can’t answer those questions. But truthfully, that is not the conversation we should be having. Blasi’s behavior was a consequential distraction.

The conversation we should be having is how Rich Strike got into this situation. A situation where he was incapable of controlling himself, and as a result the young colt suffered egregious consequences. Is Rich Strike to blame? Of course not. He’s not to blame because he was failed by every single person who has access to his life. Everyone who perpetuates the systemic barbarism of the Thoroughbred racing industry – from the owners, to the trainers, to the grooms, to the jockeys and everyone in between, including the fans. All of them failed this horse. Just like the thousands of other horses who are being failed living in servitude at tracks and breeding farms all across this country.

How are these horses being failed? They are weaned too soon, and started under saddle too young. They haven’t had a chance to mature. They are stalled too much, enduring excessive isolation and confinement. They are not socialized; they never experience play or the important dynamics of interacting with other horses. They are not provided the training they need to be safely handled. The typical life of a Thoroughbred is stressful, emotionally and mentally traumatic, physically damaging, and goes against everything natural and everything horses need to thrive. They are stripped of the intrinsic right to participate in their own life. And they are just babies.

Race Day. We have a horse who is essentially still an infant. He’s at the height of rambunctious energy, he should be moving about with other horses, learning, growing, but the days beforehand – most of his life, really – he’s been locked in a stall. His sleep rhythm is on human time, not his own. Rather than natural grazing – something so crucial to equine gut health – he’s given large meals of high-energy feed. His testosterone is raging. Roll all this up and set him down on the adrenaline-fueled grounds of the Kentucky Derby. The noise, the frenetic activity, the smells. The hats. Oh, those hats. He can feel the nervous excitement of the people around him. He can sense the pent-up power of the other horses.

Rich Strike is being called a “storybook underdog,” an “inspiring hero.” He’s neither of those things. He’s the equivalent of a child who has been deprived of ANY natural movement, forced to work like a “seasoned athlete”; he’s ramped up on adrenaline and testosterone and high-energy feed, and he was relentlessly whipped to obey the only training he’s ever received: RUN. He won because he ran faster than the other horses. Period.

After the race, it was clear Rich Strike was ready to explode as he was being led to the winner’s circle; he bit outrider Greg Blasi and tried to ravage Blasi’s pony. Why? Because it was a perfect storm: the young colt is the equivalent of a child, ramped up on adrenaline and testosterone and high-energy feed, and he’s never been provided the training he needs to control his behavior.

And that is the systemic barbarism of this “sport,” and it will never change because owners and trainers don’t make money by allowing horses to mature physically and mentally and by allowing them to socialize and simply “be a horse.” Owners and trainers don’t make money by giving horses, especially stallions, the skills they need to be handled safely. All that is wasting time. And these young Thoroughbreds suffer, pay the price, because everyone around them has failed them.

Rich Strike won because he ran faster than the other horses. Period. Not because he wanted to be the next inspirational feel-good story. Believing that Rich Strike or any horse cares whether or not he won a human-derived contest is absurd and it is anthropomorphism at its worst.

Shedrow Secrets

Willow, the Final Chapter (chapter 1 here; chapter 2 here)

by Joy Aten

Willow, a recently-raced mare when found starving in October of last year, was humanely euthanized on June 24 with Laura, her rescuer and forever home, at her side. Willow’s severely damaged ankle could no longer support her, nor would it respond to pain management. Although Laura knew Willow’s life would be cut short because of what racing did to her, she had longed for more time with this sweet mare who had learned to trust, and been so easy to love.

Laura’s goodbye: “It was the hardest, yet at the same time the kindest, thing I had to do for Willow. She went to sleep peacefully. Duke and Bart [Willow’s herd mates] came to say goodbye to her, so they knew what happened to their beloved Willow.”

Willow was eight years old; her “forever” with Laura was 230 days.

Time for Parading – “Willow” – found injured and starving nine months after her last race:

Willow shortly after arrival at Laura’s November 7:

Willow enjoying her limited time with one of her mates, Duke. Although Laura was able to bring the starved mare back to a healthy weight, her damaged ankle continued to deteriorate:

Promising Willow she will always be loved:

Willow, a casualty that this vile industry will neither acknowledge nor record. But we will here. Goodbye gentle soul…

Our vice president, Joy Aten, contributes the following on Rose’s Asset:

On July 30, 2019, Rose’s Asset was raced in a 5K claimer at Thistledown for owner W.A.R. Racing and trainer Jeffrey Radosevich. The 6-year-old gray mare finished last of 7, 16 lengths back; Equibase said she “hopped at the start…then stopped.”

A few weeks later, Rose’s Asset was one of a “couple mares available, possible broodmare prospects, $750.” Her ad, exactly as it appeared:

That ad ran on August 18.

One week later, owner/trainer Gerald Erfle ran Rose’s Asset at Mountaineer: “took a bad step, [fell], vanned off.” According to a fan, “She went down – couldn’t get up.” And according to the West Virginia Racing Commission (through Patrick’s FOIA request), Rose’s Asset suffered a “compound, comminuted MCIII fracture” – the cannon bone of one of her front limbs splintered into pieces, with fragments piercing her skin.

A lame “broodmare prospect” on August 18 – then raced to her death just one week later. Of course, Erfle has blood on his hands, but how about W.A.R. Racing and Radosevich (for selling – dumping – rather than retiring her), the stewards, track officials, and (perhaps worst of all) the vets? Vile, to the core.

Shedrow Secrets

Fast Karma

by Mary Johnson

For those of us who follow Horseracing Wrongs, the descriptions of dead horses are all too familiar:

– complete rupture of suspensory apparatus
– multiple fractures and ruptures; severe, extensive cartilage loss
– catastrophic skull fracture
– catastrophic fractures of vertebrae
– and of course the proverbial “collapsed, sudden death”

All of these horrific descriptions come from the racing industry itself through FOIA requests. They aren’t propaganda or fake news, as the racing supporters would have you believe, but are factual accounts of horses dying for gambling entertainment. However, there are horses who do make it out alive but are so badly damaged that euthanasia is the only humane option. Every single one of these horses deserves to be recognized and have their story told. This is Fast Karma’s.

It was late November, 2018…a chilly, gray day…a prelude to the winter right around the corner. I was on my way to do a sanctuary site-check for a calf I had recently purchased from a farmer to prevent her from eventually ending up on someone’s dinner plate. I was focused on the unfamiliar country road when I got a call from Sharman Privett, an equine advocate and a friend. Sharman has a big heart and always tries her best to network for those many horses who have no other options.

Sharman asked if I knew of anyone who might be interested in a sweet, five-year-old Thoroughbred who could possibly be a low-level pleasure horse or, at worst, a pasture companion. Sharman is on the board of a TAA-accredited facility located in Michigan, so I immediately asked her if that rescue could take him; she said no, they were full. Of course, I didn’t know of anyone looking for a horse who, most likely, would be limited, but I was determined to help in any way that I could even if it meant euthanasia down the road. Having been in the rescue world for many years, I believe that a horse waiting to be slaughtered would gladly change places with a horse waiting to be euthanized, and I have made it my personal mission to never allow a horse with whom I’ve become involved to get on THAT truck.

Sharman agreed to take Karma temporarily while we looked for a new home. She immediately had x-rays done by her local vet. He told her that Karma’s knees were a “hot mess of chips [fractures].” Heartbreaking. Karma was ONLY five years old…still a baby…and should have had a promising future, but like so many others, racing had taken a horrific toll and sealed his fate. Still, we soldiered on, hoping against hope.

I shared Karma’s story with Rose Smith, a regular on this site, and after several discussions we agreed to give Karma a fighting chance. We decided to split the cost of knee surgery at Equine Specialty Hospital if, of course, the surgeon felt his long-term prognosis would be favorable. But first we needed to find him a safe place since Sharman couldn’t keep him. We eventually found a rescue that would accept him.

Karma’s initial x-rays were forwarded to Equine Specialty and I spoke to Dr. Nate McClellan about Karma’s prognosis. Although Dr. McClellan never physically examined Karma, his analysis of the x-rays was sobering: severe damage in the upper joints of both knees, the right being the worst, as well as fragmentation in the back joints. He described the joints as “end stage” and the chips as “big fragments” – a couple centimeters in length. Karma was suffering from end-stage arthritis. Based on the x-rays, Dr. McClellan felt that Karma had a “fairly poor surgical prognosis.” I was obviously upset, but I gathered my thoughts and asked the question I have asked so many times before: How could Karma have raced on those knees? It was Dr. McClellan’s opinion that Karma had been injected to keep him on the track.

After my conversation with Dr. McClellan, Rose and I decided that Karma should be euthanized, but we wanted to give him a few good months – to give him a life, brief though it would be, where nothing was expected, where he could just “be a horse.” I was notified in July that the rescue that had agreed to take Karma was closing, and I decided to adopt him, along with two others. Karma was not in great condition, having lost considerable weight. On Friday July 26th, the three horses were delivered to a barn where Rose and I have previously boarded. The owner loved Karma and treated him wonderfully while managing his pain with meds. She described him as a sweet “in your pocket” horse. I visited him regularly and grew to love him dearly.

Karma, in August, right after I acquired him…

November…

On December 16th, Karma was euthanized. I was there wishing him a safe trip across the Bridge, reassuring him that his friends would be waiting to greet him. The ending was peaceful but filled with bitter sadness. Here was yet another loving, trusting horse destroyed by an industry that obscenely claims that their “athletes” are “loved like family.” I simply call it the BIG LIE.

Fast Karma earned $73,000 for his racing “connections” during his brief “career.” First thrust onto the track at two, he was put to the whip 19 times in all. In 2018, he was raced just once, at Belterra in May, finishing 6th of 8. However, five months later, he had a “timed workout”:

Yes, a workout – with an eye toward racing him again – on two knees with END-STAGE ARTHRITIS. Anger doesn’t begin to describe how I feel. Truth is, that damage started way before then. In the end, it was up to those of us who have never made a dime in this sinister industry to step up for poor Karma. Those who exploited, abused, and eventually trashed him have already moved on to the next asset. But we who got to know and love him will NEVER forget. RIP, Karma.

Karma, the day he was euthanized…