Michael Ballezzi recoiled every time he saw the words ‘horse’ and ‘slaughter’ in proximity. He had a thoughtful idea, but ideas without pragmatic solutions become goodwill without follow through.
In May 2008, that idea became the solution when a funding mechanism was developed which would allow horses at Parx Racing that were no longer able to compete be rehabilitated, retrained and rehomed, horse racing’s version of the three Rs. Ballezzi presented his idea to the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (PTHA) Board of Directors which supported the idea and its funding. An 8-year-old son of 1981 Kentucky Derby winner Pleasant Colony named Maneuverable became the first of what is now 2,347 horses in the PTHA’s Turning for Home Racehorse Retirement Program (TFH).
Ballezzi, the Executive Director of the PTHA, hired Barbara Luna to be the first Program Administrator. Five years ago, Danielle Montgomery succeeded Luna in the position. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, TFH is the model program in the industry, emulated by more and more racetrack organizations.
The goal is simple: find a good home for Parx-based horses that either because of poor performance or injury can no longer compete at the track. TFH was not the first organization with such a laudable goal. It was the first that successfully developed a self-sustaining funding model for what can be a very expensive endeavor.
Horses might have a 5-year career on the track, but they often live another 20 years. What to do with those horses that require feeding, veterinary work and possible surgeries had been a problem without a solution – until TFH.
TFH is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the PTHA. Approximately 80 percent of the annual funding comes from the owners who race at the track, with a $30 deduction per start. That amounts to around $360,000 annually. PTHA and Parx management contribute $50,000 per year, Parx jockeys $25,000 ($20 per win, $10 per place) and the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders (PHBA) contribute $15,000. Public donations and fundraising account for the remainder of the program’s funding.
It is essentially horsemen saving horses. No horses are turned down by TFH.
Through the decade, the operation has been streamlined. It begins when an owner and trainer decide it is time to retire a horse. At Parx, it is mandated that you can’t sell any horse without knowing where that horse might end up. Violating that rule results in a loss of stalls. It has happened just twice because Parx enforced its zero-tolerance policy.
There is an intake form in the TFH office right inside the door of the Parx Administration Building in the track’s stable area. Once that is filled out and the foal papers are signed over, those papers go to the Jockey Club to be stamped as “Retired from Racing.’’ Each horse will then be evaluated by a veterinarian as the search for a home begins. On-track vet Dr. Thomas Lurito makes the initial assessment. If surgery is needed, Dr. Janik Gasiorowski generally performs the surgery at a big discount.
“We choose the farm based on the horse’s needs,’’ Montgomery said.
TFH has 20 Partner Farms.
“We have two types of Partner Farms,’’ Ballezzi said. “One gets the horse ready to be retrained and re-homed. We also have the rehab farms where we send our horses from the veterinary exams to be rehabbed medically for layups. The point is we don’t let any horse out until we know the horse can survive training. We have an intermediary group of farms that do that.’’
Horses with more needs are sent to Partner Farms with as much as a $1,500 stipend. Eventually, once the horses are ready, the farms will find new owners to adopt the horses, perhaps to become recreational riding horses, hunter jumpers and therapeutic horses among other uses. Maneuverable, the very first horse in the program, became a fox hunter and was renamed “Honest Abe.’’ The Partner Farms, an important link in the chain from race track to long term homes, get to keep any adoption fees.
All the while, TFH tracks each of the retired horses, checks up on the Partner Farms regularly and makes certain any horses that once raced at Parx are well treated. In 2018, Montgomery said it is typically two weeks from the time they receive an intake form until a horse can be moved to a Partner Farm.
“We’ve earned the trust of our horsemen here,’’ Montgomery said. “We’ve earned the trust of our farms and our adopters.’’
That the Thoroughbreds have been professionally trained since birth gives them a big advantage in finding homes.
“It’s better to get a horse off the track,’’ said Montgomery, who got her start on the track as a hotwalker and exercise rider before a short stint as a trainer. “Somebody has already put in all the time. I don’t know anybody that’s going to raise a horse from a baby that has the discipline to make sure that horse is going to be trained every day for three years.’’
The keys to the program’s success are the people who are so dedicated to it, including Montgomery, PTHA Marketing Director Nikki Sherman and Montgomery’s assistant Danielle Gibson. But none of it would be possible without the funding mechanism developed by Ballezzi that was supported so quickly by the PTHA board and remains supported today, especially by current PTHA President Sal DeBunda.
“The point is I know that the horses are safe and that the program is being administered correctly and that the money is being spent wisely,’’ Ballezzi said.
Somewhat similar programs were implemented at other tracks, but were not sustainable because they were not funded adequately. At Parx, which has become the national model, the horsemen who benefit from their share of the slots money give back to their horses by helping to fund TFH.
“Mike got it right from the start,’’ Montgomery said. “We’ve been able to assist every horse that’s been presented to us. We’ve never turned a horse away.’’
So that slot money essentially is now being used to save horses. And the saving could not happen without the slot money. The money is paid to the horsemen first in the form of purses. Then, that $30 deduction per starter goes to TFH.
“We tell the owners and trainers where their former horses are,’’ Montgomery said. “They love to follow their progress, and some owners have gone to support their horses at shows like the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover in Kentucky.’’
The fifth annual Turning for Home Day at Parx is on Saturday, June 23. That day, fans who once followed these horses and perhaps bet on them, get to learn about where those horses are now and what they are doing.
Beyond helping the retired horses live long lives, all the data the vets are getting from studying and cataloging any injures these horses might have will help to develop programs that can better treat or even prevent some of these injuries in the future.
The PTHA pays for any diagnostics like X-rays. Then TFH keeps an online file for each horse, including vet records, injuries and anything that might be help in a follow up months or years down the road.
That is a residual benefit of Turning for Home. “The’’ benefit is that all Parx horses are given an alternative to slaughter and are offered a second career with adopters who will love and care for them.
-By Dick Jerardi