A study entitled Factors Affecting Thoroughbred Online Auction Prices in Non/Post Racing Careers was published last spring in the journal Animals, and grew out of a master thesis by Illinois State University student Madalynn Camp. The research team found that a thoroughbred’s racing career lasts approximately 4.5 years. But the average lifespan of a horse is much longer, between 20-30 years, meaning there is a lot of “life” left in these horses once their racing days are over.

The study involved collecting data on horse and auction characteristics such as age, sex, colour, height and any health issues. While there were many interesting findings that emerged, two stood out for those looking to rehab and sell OTTBs. The first is how colour, discipline, and age are factors in price. The study found that on average, a five- or six-year-old grey or chestnut gelding who is trained in jumping or dressage and has no known health issues is most likely to command the highest price. The second finding was that many of the horses that sold for higher prices had prior USEF/USHJA/USEA memberships and therefore had show records and experience in the ring.

One of the study’s authors, Dr. Jada M. Thompson, assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, explains that another factor in price was the specific disciplines a horse was trained in. “While we didn’t find a significant premium, those listed with ‘trail’ commanded a discount. If you were a trainer, it may be better to train in a discipline to get a higher value,” she says. “These results show what buyers in online auctions are looking for. It shows the value of colours and how to market your horse in the auction details. All of this was not previously known.”

Thompson points out that one important factor that the race industry can learn from the study is that there are second career pathways that are a viable option to sending horses into the slaughter pipeline – and that understanding the value of your horse makes it easier to sell and set realistic prices and expectations. “These horses aren’t destined only to rescues or [sold at] at a loss, there is a market. Sport markets can use these horses,” she says.

“Through education we can elevate the Sport of Kings and ensure the horses will remain the Kings of Sport.”

This is a fact that organizations dedicated to OTTBs agree with. “The study is important to the issue of horse welfare and reducing the number of retiring Thoroughbred racehorses ending up at sale auctions,” says Polly Poppy, president of the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses (CANTER), which is mentioned in the study. “The study highlights the need for the racing industry as a whole – from breeding to retirement – to work with rehoming organizations and individuals to secure the safe retirement for racehorses.” This includes jockeys and grooms, HISA  (Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority), track veterinary personnel, track licensing and management, and racing fans and enthusiasts, “to ensure the safety and welfare of the horses at every step in their careers,” she adds. “Through education we can elevate the Sport of Kings and ensure the horses will remain the Kings of Sport.”

While the study focused on the auction process, Thompson hopes that private sellers can also use the values found in the study as a baseline. “There is a bias in sellers to overestimate the value of the goods they are selling; this study helps to reset those expectations so a seller, private or at auction, may put their best hoof forward,” she says.

Selling price, however, may not tell the whole story as to an animal’s potential value or usefulness. “Buyers and sellers need to be aware that a low asking price may not mean the horse in not suitable for a specific career, and many re-sellers buy low only to sell high a year later after the horse has transitioned to the new career,” Poppy explains. “However, a low sale price also attracts bad actors, which is how many horses (OTTBs and others) find themselves at auction.”

Poppy suggests that race connections can prevent that by asking for an above market price and selling their horses with a no-auction contract. “Buyers can recognize that the sale price is the least expensive part of buying a horse off the track and be willing to offer a fair price above auction reserves,” she says.

Many times, horses who are perceived as top performers at the track would have extra appeal to adopters because of their “status”.

For other organizations that focus on rehoming and rehabilitating OTTBs, the study may or may not prove useful, depending on how they operate. “Our experience is that tall, sound, young horses, especially greys, would be the easiest to place, but these are hard to come by,” says Vicki Pappas, chairperson and founding director of LongRun Thoroughbred Retirement Society in Ontario, which takes in 30 to 35 horses a year and rehomes a similar amount.

Pappas says that in her experience with rehoming ex-racehorses, the length of a horse’s racing career may not be a determining factor in a horse’s adoption potential and many times horses who are perceived as top performers at the track would have extra appeal to adopters because of their “status”.

“We have placed a Queen’s Plate winner, only because he really wanted a job, and currently have a millionaire looking for a forever home,” she explains. “Both of these horses were, and always will be, well supported by their racetrack connections. As we charge a blanket adoption fee of $1,000 for any of our rideable horses, age and physicality has no influence on price for us.”

LongRun is mandated to take in horses right off the track, or from owners who have rehabbed them after their racing days are over. “Many of the horses donated to us require downtime and rehab, plus we have a number of permanent residents who either fall into the “Stable Star” or “Sanctuary” category,” Pappas adds. “Currently we care for well over 60 horses and get an incredible amount of support from the racing industry and horse lovers in general.”

There are other rehoming agencies in Canada; Southern Belle, run in Ontario by Katie Larsen, finds new homes and careers for about 150 OTTBs a year. In BC, New Stride Thoroughbred Adoption Society has placed over 200 horses, while Wild Hearts is a newer adoption organization which retrains and matches Thoroughbreds with new owners.

There is hope that the study will find its way into the hands of racehorse industry folks who may not have a connection to places such as LongRun.

“These horses can have successful and long second careers,” says Thompson. “Showcasing the market and helping to facilitate horses into their second career is ‘paramount to the image and social license to operate for the thoroughbred racing industry’ to quote the paper. This paper just helps provide information to help those that are transitioning these horses to best market them and set realistic expectations.”