Saving racehorses from slaughterhouse
Saving racehorses from slaughterhouse
Non-profit service finds homes for thoroughbreds now out of the running

By Ralph Blumenthal
New York Times News Service
Published April 14, 2004

As a racehorse, Kaaabang was a bust, a 4-year-old sorrel thoroughbred who saw
altogether too much of the hindquarters of his fleeter rivals.

"He didn't win anything," said Lynn Rorke, taking care to lower her voice,
out of Kaaabang's earshot. "He was just so awful. I don't know any other way to
put it." Plus, he was not the brightest horse on the ranch, she said.

At another time and place, Kaaabang, whose bloodline, like those of all
thoroughbreds, can be traced back hundreds of years, might have ended up on the
auction block and perhaps on a dinner table in Paris. But Kaaabang, happily
nibbling grass on a hot March afternoon in a corral in Cedar Creek, Texas, near
Austin, had the good fortune to catch the eye of Rorke.

Her non-profit service, Canter of Texas, works to find new homes for
racehorses that have crossed their last finish lines.

"It's really like being a matchmaker and a horse career counselor rolled into
one," said Rorke, 42, an avid horsewoman who recently bought a 26-acre ranch
for her rescue service. She and her husband, Tom, a consultant to non-profit
groups, raised $30,000 from donors toward the $180,000 price, and they run the
ranch largely by themselves.

She eschews salary

Taking no salary and charging no commission to put owners in touch with
buyers, Rorke boards up to eight horses at a time while arranging their
"transition" to being show horses, breeders or just plain gorgeous trail-riding mounts,
at sale prices of no more than $5,000. She arranges sales through Internet
listings ( and word of mouth.

Because of their breeding and training, thoroughbreds often are
temperamental, a quality that can work against them at auction. And with more than 300,000
active racehorses in the United States, the fate of old or injured champions
and non-starters is no small issue, horse lovers say.

"I learned what happens to horses that don't run fast enough or are laid up
with an injury," said Jo Anne Normile, a horse owner from Michigan who founded
Canter. "They were loaded up into a big van going directly to Canada to a
slaughterhouse, or an auction where there was a good possibility they would be
sold cheaply for the price of meat."

The animals were beautiful and expensive, Normile said, but if they couldn't
run, owners didn't want them. And the public had little opportunity to find
out about the horses.

But once Normile placed two thoroughbreds for a fellow owner in 1997, she
said, "they saw me as an outlet." She took the role of unpaid go-between, within
three months finding homes for 50 more horses and starting Canter, the
Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses.

Normile estimates that Canter has saved 2,500 horses. In addition to Texas,
where Rorke began a chapter, Canter now has chapters for Illinois, Ohio, the
mid-Atlantic states and New England, with Iowa, Indiana and Pennsylvania "in the
starting gate," Normile said.

Horse industry spurs idea

The horse industry has welcomed the initiative. "The fantastic thing about
Canter is the way it legitimizes racehorse retirement," said Kristi Boyd, who
trains jumpers and other show horses at Trinity Hill Farm in Del Valle, Texas,
and has bought horses through Canter. And trainers, she said, are spared
incessant questions from curious horse-fanciers.

The new owners do have to retrain these creatures, for whom pulling on the
reins signals not whoa, but go! "They only understand two speeds," Boyd said.
"One is no speed at all, the other is `let's get on down there so we don't get
in trouble.'"

Rorke said she has placed about 90 thoroughbreds. While growing up in
northern Virginia, she fell in love with horses, volunteering with the mounted park
police in Arlington.

She supports herself and her Canter work by giving riding lessons. But, she
said, "I'm enjoying this, so I don't want it to sound like I'm a martyr."

The ranch she bought in Cedar Creek in March sustained not just Kaaabang, but
Big Boy Slew, a 3-year-old bay who she said was a grandson of the legendary
Seattle Slew; Zuper, a 9-year-old bay who had won purses totaling about
$200,000; and Tulsa Mambo, a 3-year-old dark bay gelding -- a neutered male horse --
although, Rorke said, "We try not to throw the word around Tulsa, he gets

She haunts the leading tracks -- Sam Houston in Houston, Retama near San
Antonio, Lone Star near Dallas, among others -- chatting up trainers and handing
out leaflets with testimonials from happy sellers and buyers and a color photo
of the south ends of a field of contenders galloping away. The headline: "Does
This View Look Familiar to Your Horse?"

To those unhappy owners, Canter of Texas says: "Let us help you solve your
headaches and find a good home for your horse. No cost for you. You set the
price and we find you buyers."

As part of its free service, Canter photographs the horses and markets them
but steps aside if the owner backs out or finds a buyer independently.

On Saturdays in racing season, Rorke is often up at dawn to drive to a track.
At Sam Houston recently, before she bought her ranch, she stood at the rail
watching the workouts, then made her way to the back side of the track,
stopping at a stunning 4-year-old filly with paintlike markings named Sunny's Colors,
being groomed by her trainer.

"You can see what she looks like," said the trainer, Mindy Willis. "Her
sister can run, she can't. She just doesn't seem to have it."

Sunny's Colors was for sale for $3,500, Willis said. But, she hastened to
add, "she's a really smooth mover."

Rorke took notes. "I'll put that in," she said, before stepping over to snap
some photographs.

Meanwhile, there's room at the Canter ranch. Rorke reports that Big Boy Slew
is being adopted and Kaaabang already has a new home.