Missouri group works to save raced-out thoroughbreds

Sunday, August 3, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- Seabiscuit, the horse that America cheered as an average guy going up against the bluebloods, is galloping across the big screen. Meanwhile, Robin Hurst of Jamestown, Mo., tends to 30 ex-racehorses whose racing careers really were average: They won big, won less, got hurt, won too little to pay their way and then went the way of business associates no longer profitable to the business.

As many as 6,000 thoroughbreds annually run that loser's circle and end up at the slaughter yards. Their chances of rescue and retirement are diminished by the fact that, as their abilities erode, they pass from owner to owner and trainer to trainer so quickly that no one person assumes the burden of responsibility for them.

But Hurst's crew got lucky, as lucky as any long-shot stakes winner who comes in by a nose. Different people bought them, in many cases at the door to the abattoir, and sent them to Hurst, whose Out2Pasture farm is the first Missouri branch of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.

Donation-supported

Founded in 1982, with branches in New York, Connecticut, Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Illinois, New Jersey, Vermont, Florida, Pennsylvania and now Missouri, the donation-supported foundation accepts for retirement any thoroughbred with a racing record for which private placement has proved difficult. Subsequently, the animal may be adopted privately, but it is more likely to remain one of the farm's elegant, fragile dependents for the rest of its days.

With a capacity for 1,000 horses and plans to expand, the foundation has been able to make a dent in the deplorable number of thoroughbreds sent to slaughter. Its success is thanks to novel, cost-cutting partnerships it has formed with educational and correctional institutions in different states.

In New York, one of the group's retirement farms is on 50 acres of state-owned land at the Wallkill Correctional Facility. Prison inmates rehabilitate the magnificent wrecks brought to the farm and also earn a state-accredited vocational certification in horse care. Meanwhile, the soaring cost of land and labor is reduced for the foundation. The program has been so successful that similar partnerships have been implemented with departments of corrections in Kentucky and Florida.

In Maryland, the farm is at Baltimore's Charles Hickey School, a facility for young men with criminal records. Like the institutionalized boys, a lot of the horses have been abused, and the rapport often is immediate, says the executive director, Col. George Hudgens.

The social-service dimension of the foundation has added value to the whole operation in the minds of people who might not be inclined to support an animal-rescue mission and has become a crucial part of the group's success. Nothing so appealing as a win-win situation, as anyone who hits the daily double can tell you.

Robin Hurst is a biology professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia. Her husband, Zac March, is the director of informational technology at the college of veterinary medicine there, so to them the logical hookup for the Missouri branch was with the vet school as a teaching resource.

Two years ago, after Hurst and the group's board of directors had interviewed each other and decided they could work together, Hurst approached the vet school's newly hired clinical instructor, Dr. Amy Rucker, about the marvelous spectrum of sports-related lameness and behavioral aberrations that Hurst could offer the vet students for study. In return, the horses would get diagnosis and treatment (although TRF pays for the medical supplies and drugs).

"I tell everybody that we have three classes of retirees here," Hurst said as she navigated a wheelbarrow full of manure from a stall to the compost area. "There are the physically injured, the mentally screwed and the totally wrecked."

Rucker, who had just arrived with fourth-year vet student Libby Robertson, beamed like a gratified guest at an expansive buffet.

"Where shall we start?" Rucker asked happily. She explained: "What's great about coming here is the time we have to figure things out. There's no pressure. The horse doesn't belong to an owner who wants an answer about what's wrong with him today and a result tomorrow."

Robertson, from Washington, Mo., nodded gratefully. "You can watch an injury improve or not," she said. "You don't just step in once and never see the horse again. You can track the horse and see if what you did worked. You figure out what tests to give. With a real customer, you can't just give every test because they can't afford it."

These castoffs have proved valuable for independent studies as well as standard clinical courses. Shannon Reed, a fourth-year student, selected some of Hurst's cripples to receive pain medications in an investigation she conducted about the relative effectiveness of two equine popular anti-inflammatories, Butazolidin and Banamine. The results were interesting enough for her to win funding for a larger study from USA-Equestrian, the governing organization for most horse shows in the United States.

Under consideration for university funding is a proposal submitted by Hurst and March for all the treatment records, X-rays, ultrasounds and photographs of each horse cared for by the vet students to be stored in a digital library of lameness modules.

"They'll be able to access any case after they get into practice," said Hurst as she wheeled her wheelbarrow, this time full of fresh shavings, toward a stall. "So if they are treating a horse with, say, bony changes in the knee, they can go to the computer and look up one of our cases here, remind themselves what they did and how well it worked. "

The main patient on this day is a huge gray gelding named My Abraham. The horse, 11 years old, was a grandson of the superb Spectacular Bid. My Abraham raced until he was 10 and followed the typical track from great promise to abandonment.

Bred and trained in Texas by a veterinarian, My Abraham broke a track record in Houston his first time out and tied another track record in his second start. His breeder, Dr. Curtis Kidd, remembers My Abraham as "the fastest horse I ever put a saddle on."

But in his third start, the horse got squeezed, fell and chipped his knee. Kidd paid for the surgery to remove the bone chip. "But I never could get him back to the status he was; he could run, but not like before, so I sold him," he said. "You try to look after them, but you can't keep them all."

Seven years and 80 starts later, the horse landed in a dealer's lot in Belgrade, Mo. The animal was bone-thin and had a terrible laceration on his rear leg. A supporter of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation who was in the area to buy a quarter horse, purchased My Abraham for $250 and hoped she could get him sound enough to give away as a trail horse. But My Abraham did not want to go sedately behind another horse.

"He wants to run," the woman wrote. "He wants his old self back again. If you can't take him, he'll have to join God's herd. And I hope there's a quarter-pole in heaven for him to flash by, because that's heaven to Abe."

Abe stood with aloof good manners as Libby Robertson began her examination. The horse had an abscess on its shoulder, the result of a puncture wound from a splinter.

"I wonder if there's a piece of something still inside there," said Robertson, probing. "It shouldn't still be draining this much after three weeks."

From the back of the university truck, out came an ultrasound, a laptop computer and an X-ray -- a traveling clinic. The ultrasounds showed a pocket of pus below the wound. The two vets decided to open the pocket to accelerate the drainage and the healing. My Abraham got a sedative to help him snooze and a topical to numb the area of the incision. In a panic at the thought of witnessing an incision on one of her pets, Hurst propelled her wheelbarrow out of the barn toward the garden, where she cowered.

Robertson measured with her fingers and said tentatively, "I think I should make my incision here." Rucker nodded.

Twenty minutes later, the wound was drained and packed with subcutaneous antibiotics. On the laptop, Rucker entered the data from the visit in a file that will be enlarged over the years, a lifetime of information in return for a life.

Robertson told Hurst, "Now you need to continue to put antibiotics in the wound. Put the tube in until you come up against tissue, then retract and inject the antibiotic."

Rucker nodded approvingly. "You'd be surprised how important it is for the students to practice communicating with the owners about treatment," she said.

Abe chewed a carrot, an average guy who beat the odds.

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