Media Empire Ends Up as One of the Lucky Horses

By Bill Christine
Times Staff Writer

August 29, 2004

When Kelly Young bought an unraced 3-year-old thoroughbred for $225 last month, saving the colt from a trip to a slaughterhouse, her husband Tracy questioned the purchase.

"You bought a stallion?" Tracy Young said. "We don't buy stallions."

The Youngs, who own a 20-acre farm near York, Pa., are not in the breeding business, but they work hard to save discarded horses from the fate that almost befell Media Empire, the $225 colt. Their Lost and Found Rescue Foundation has placed more than 500 horses since 1997.

"The sale was on a Monday [July 19], and by the time I got the horse home, I had already lined up a vet to geld [castrate] him on Thursday," Kelly Young said. "But that was before I looked at the horse's papers."

Those papers listed Media Empire's parentage, and Young looked at them in amazement. The sire was Danzig, one of the world's most famous stallions, and the dam was Media Nox, who had already produced two stakes winners.

Media Empire, bred and originally owned by Juddmonte Farms, the international equine empire of Khalid Abdullah, a Saudi Arabian prince, went through two more ownerships before he was dropped into a weekly sale of horses usually destined for a slaughterhouse. Media Empire was sold for $175 at the sale in Lancaster, Pa., but afterward, Kelly Young, struck by the sharp appearance of the horse, bought him from the Canadian buyer.

"He's quite a horse," said Young, who quickly canceled Media Empire's appointment to be gelded. "He's simply gorgeous. The whole thing is so surreal. He had a foot abscess, and he had a problem with his right hind hock, but these are things we can treat. The other horses we claim are nowhere near the caliber of this one."

Media Empire is fortunate that Young bought him, but some other well-bred horses are sometimes not as lucky. Exceller, who beat a pair of Triple Crown champions, Affirmed and Seattle Slew, in the same race and was elected to the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame in 1999, was a disappointment at stud and met his end in a Swedish slaughterhouse in 1997. Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby, reportedly died in a slaughterhouse in Japan in 2002.

There are three slaughterhouses in the U.S., two Belgian-owned in Texas and another in Northern Illinois. John Gaines, one of the founders of the Breeders' Cup and a member of a family that has been breeding horses in Kentucky for more than 100 years, says the Texas operations kill about 50,000 horses a year, for human food consumption in Europe. Many of them are thoroughbreds.

Gaines and other horse-industry leaders are supporting legislation that would prohibit the slaughter of horses for human consumption. The bill, called the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, would also ban the exporting of horses to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.

Kelly and Tracy Young are part of a national network of horse-rescue organizations, most of them volunteer-driven, that try to protect the animals from an ignominious fate. Kim Zito, wife of trainer Nick Zito, is one of the activists and advises the Youngs. There are at least 14 horse-protection groups in California, including the California Equine Retirement Foundation, formed in 1986; the United Pegasus Foundation; and Tranquility Farm in Tehachapi, home for about 100 retired horses.

The New Jersey-based Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which began in 1982, operates farms in 12 states, many of them at state prisons, where the horses' caretakers are inmates.

Still, this safety net misses many horses. Media Empire was unsound to race, and a back injury halted his breeding career. Juddmonte sold him to William Rickman Sr., a Maryland real-estate developer and owner of Delaware Park. Rickman did not respond to repeated messages left for him at the track.

According to the Thoroughbred Times, Rickman used Media Empire as a "teaser," a horse who prepares a mare before she's actually bred to a stallion. Then he turned over the horse to someone who said he had five mares to breed. Apparently those breedings never took place and the horse wound up at the Pennsylvania slaughterhouse sale.

"It's bad publicity, but it's not my fault," Rickman told the Thoroughbred Times. "I feel terrible about what happened, but I can't be responsible for rotten people in this business. You'll find more crooks in the horse business than you will in Sing Sing."

Rickman, according to Tracy Young, was not aware that Media Empire was being sold for slaughter. Young said that Rickman had promised a "large donation" to the Lost and Found Foundation.

"It'd be nice, I suppose, if this horse might help us pay off our farm," Young said. "We might keep him as a stallion. At the start, when word got out, there were a few [purchase] offers, of about $25,000 or $30,000. But that price is really not even in the ballpark. If we get him to stud next year, one breeding alone could be worth close to that much."

The colt was recently sent to the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine's New Bolton Center, where in test breeding he was able to mount a "dummy" mare, but could not do the same thing with a real horse. The Youngs are awaiting the results of blood tests at New Bolton. The next thoroughbred breeding season starts in February.

"It's always possible that we might still geld him," Kelly Young said. "Everything is up in the air. No matter what happens, we're just glad we saved a good horse. Media Empire is not an exception. There are a lot of well-bred, well-trained horses that wind up going through these sales and are sent to slaughterhouses. It's mind-boggling what happens to these horses."

The reclamation of Media Empire has further inspired the Youngs in their rescue efforts.

"Our mission is clear, and it hasn't changed," Kelly Young said. "We're working to educate horse owners, and legislate the humane treatment of horses everywhere, whether they come to us through neglect, auction or donation. For horses of all description, we want to find homes for the ones who have been abused and neglected."