Retrained racehorses are the new “must-have” in the UK showing fraternity. This summer thousands of Thoroughbred riders have once again chased qualifying classes for important finals making up the supporting finals at the cream of the UK equestrian calendar: Royal Windsor, Horse of the Year, Royal International, Burghley. Even the Queen is keen. Her former steeplechaser Barber Shop regularly wins ex-racer classes with Katie Jerram, one of the doyennes of British showing.
On top of that, there are thousands of pounds in bonuses for the riders competing ex-racers in mainstream competition sports – jumping, dressage, eventing and polo. Barbury Castle, one of Britain’s principal three-star CICs, stages a supporting class solely for riders of ex-racehorses, in which the likes of William Fox-Pitt, Mark Todd and Andrew Nicholson regularly participate.
The filter-down effects have been dramatic. All this exposure at major events invariably prods spectators who have no inclination to hunt or compete to consider taking a former racer as their everyday hack.
And once they have acquired one, there is a nationwide network of expert, subsidised support.
All this is due to a pioneering, industry-backed charity, Retraining of Racehorses (RoR, www.ror.org.uk), which by the start of its second decade had registered 7,000 ex-racehorses in second careers.
RoR is the first to recognise that these figures represent only the small minority of horses leaving training, so its innovation never stops. This fall, RoR launched its own hugely successful championship show at Aintree (home of the Grand National). It has also recently completed a pilot scheme for re-homing the most vulnerable of ex-racers – those with physical issue on top of the temperament problems that can often flaw a first-time Thoroughbred-owner – with the British-based charity World Horse Welfare (the official welfare advisor to the FEI).
RoR has also started collaborating with another reputable charity, the Thoroughbred and Retired Racehorse Association (TARRA) that caters for the many never-raced Thoroughbreds falling outside the remit of the RoR promoted competition series. It re-established the industry backing this year by appointing two top jockeys – Frankie Dettori and Richard Johnson – as the first RoR “ambassadors.”
For a charity with its high profile, many will be surprised that, during its early years, RoR was solely administered by a determined lady from the kitchen of her home near the major racing training centre of Lambourn.
RoR operations manager Di Arbuthnot now has team of regional coordinators but still tries to run a “tight ship.” She is forever looking for ways to drive people who own ex-racers to register with RoR – even if their involvement stops at that.
“Everything we do, whether it’s processing an entry, asking for feedback on Facebook, answering enquiries about insurance [RoR has negotiated special rates with major equestrian provider, South Essex Insurance Brokes] or simply encouraging people to tell us their personal story through our ‘Heart’ awards, we make them register their horse with us.
“This helps us gather a picture of where the horses are going and what they are doing in their second careers.”
Arbuthnot is a realist who recognises that the vast majority of ex-racehorses will not end up in a “professional” home. “The ‘pink jodphur’ brigade will always be the larger market and it is our responsibility to provide support, education and as many opportunities as possible to have fun,” said Di.
The fate of racehorses once they leave racing – and of the yearlings who may never have made it into a training yard in the first place – is the “elephant in the room” for British racing, as much as is any other country.
Prior to RoR, there was a small market for sound Thoroughbreds for leisure, hunting, polo and the amateur competitive sports. Other fortunates ended up in self-funded retraining establishments or sanctuaries.
In 1994, the fate of the rest received uncomfortable attention in national media and TV in after Hello Dandy, winner of the 1984 Grand National, was found virtually abandoned in a field, aged 20, in an emaciated state.
He was taken in by the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre (TRC), one of the original retraining charities, whose founder Carrie Humble was later honoured as a Member of the British Empire (MBE). Once nursed back to health, Hello Dandy’s regular public appearances for TRC prodded others to take up the cause.
Finally, in 2000, the British Horseracing Authority set up RoR and, then as now, coordinates its core funding. RoR also benefitted from nearly £5m in initial capital donated by Sheikh Mohammed and the estate of Paul Mellon.
With investment portfolios yielding less, RoR has become more increasingly reliant on the Racehorse Owners Association’s £1 levy on race-entry fees, which returns about £200,000 a year to RoR. Through other levies, RoR receives small sums from jockeys, racecourses and breeders, via foal registration fees. It has been difficult, though, to extract a regular contribution from bookmakers.
In 2008 the BHA further acknowledged the uncertain fate of ex-racehorses by commissioning Weatherbys, the company that acts as racing’s secretariat, to locate every single one of the 7,590 horses that left the British racing industry just two years earlier, in 2006.
Of these, Weatherbys found that 852 were already dead, 743 were point-to-pointing, 1446 were retired to stud, 582 were in “sport or recreation”, 209 were racing in Ireland and the Channel Isles, 186 were sold at auction with no further records, and 1168 were exported to race (their subsequent whereabouts out of the study’s scope.)
Worst of all, 2,404 – nearly one third – could not be traced at all. Weatherbys went back to the trainers, asking what might have happened. This returned a better figure of 1,339 horses to “sport or recreation,” after adjustments made for the anecdotal nature of information.
As a small-ish island, Britain has a single racing jurisdiction which made it easier to coordinate RoR activities quickly. The BHA’s backing gave commercial sponsors and major equestrian events the confidence to get involved.
It hasn’t all run smoothly, for RoR has often disagreed about funding with the four pre-existing re-training centres that it “adopted:” TRC, in the north of England, and HEROS, Moorcroft and Greatwood in the south. The centres are another key shop window for RoR and provide a safety net for the ultra-quirky or lame that might otherwise ended up at the lower grade sales with the hope of achieving the minimum bid of £600 – the figure uniformly adopted in the UK, in the hope of deterring the “meat man.”
However, while the four centres process barely10% of the horses leaving training, at one stage they were receiving nearly half of RoR’s annual budget. The centres made a further call for more money in the economic crash, after a rush of returns from people who could not afford to keep their ex-racers.
But Arbuthnot and the RoR trustees feel RoR must prioritise incentives for the thousands of individuals with the potential to re-home the other 90%. These new owners, often with no previous experience of Thoroughbreds, obtain horses direct from trainers and sales, and from the growing number of unauthorised “intermediaries” making a “fast buck” from this latest horsey fashion.
Many re-homers have no racing industry connections and thus no idea how to source an ex-racehorse, apart from advertisements in equestrian magazines vaguely stating a horse “will do RoR.” These end-users in particular are targeted for help through RoR subsidised clinics and workshops and free on-line advice. The latter is managed by Fred and Rowena Cook, who have run their own retraining barn since 1989.
Rowena says the digital age is a mixed blessing. There are plenty of “armchair experts” giving bad advice on chatrooms – RoR axed its own users’ on-line forum for that reason. The Cooks compose three or four bespoke advices for RoR registrants every day.
“Even in the very best barns, horses become institutionalised, and it’s only once they’ve moved that they will show mannerisms or stable vices they didn’t have before,” said Rowena. “At that point, they are likely to change hands quickly a second time, thereby compounding their problems.
“Livery yards are usually noisy, with children and dogs, no real structure to the day and no afternoon shutdown.”
“Retraining these horses isn’t rocket science, and for the average riding person they are so versatile and fit the bill. But owners disposing of horses, and the horse’s future rider, need to understand the life he used to have, and how huge the change will be.”