April 4, 2004
New Start for Horses Once Left Behind
s a racehorse in Texas, 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. "He's not going to college anytime soon," 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, Tex., near Austin, had the good fortune to catch the eye of Ms. Rorke.
Her nonprofit 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 Ms. Rorke, 42, an avid horsewoman who recently bought a 26-acre ranch for her rescue service. She and her husband, Tom, a consultant to nonprofit groups, raised $30,000 from donors toward the $180,000 price, and they run the ranch largely by themselves.
Taking no salary and charging no commission to put owners in touch with buyers, Ms. 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 (www.canterusa.org/texas) and word of mouth.
Because of their breeding and training, thoroughbreds are often 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 superannuated or injured champions and nonstarters 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," Jo Anne Normile, a horse owner from Michigan who founded Canter, said in a telephone interview. "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, Ms. Normile said, but if they could not run, owners did not want them. And the public, barred from the shed rows of the tracks for security reasons, had little opportunity to find out about the horses.
But once Ms. 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.
Ms. Normile estimates that Canter has saved 2,500 horses. In addition to Texas, where Ms. 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," Ms. Normile said.
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, Tex., and has bought horses through Canter. And trainers, she said, are spared incessant questions from curious horse-fanciers.
But 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," Ms. Boyd said. "One is no speed at all, the other is `let's get on down there so we don't get in trouble.' "
Mr. 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 and learning to play polo.
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 now sustains 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 of about $200,000; and Tulsa Mambo, a 3-year-old dark bay gelding — a neutered male horse — although, Ms. Rorke said, "We try not to throw the word around Tulsa, he gets depressed."
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, Ms. 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," the trainer, Mindy Willis, said with a note of resignation. "Her sister can run, she can't. She just doesn't seem to have it."
Sunny's Colors was for sale for $3,500, Ms. Willis said. But, she hastened to add, "she's a really smooth mover."
Ms. Rorke took notes. "I'll put that in," she said, before stepping over to snap some photographs.
Ms. Willis offered another filly, a 3-year-old bay named Nate's Castle. "They just don't want to mess with her anymore," she said. "She's real plain so we can't ask a lot for her."
But the trainer said wistfully, "I'm telling you, she was the best-looking one in the race yesterday."
Ms. Rorke looked at the horse appreciatively. "She looks like speed," she said. "This is what gets hard about my job. I'm tempted to take her myself." But her capacity was limited.
There was yet another horse, Ms. Willis said, pointing out a blood bay, almost reddish, 4-year-old stallion, Cowboy Drifter.
"He's sharp, ready to go," she said.
"How much, $2,500?" Ms. Rorke asked.
"I should ask more because I'm not that eager to sell him," the trainer said.
"Three thousand?" asked Ms. Rorke.
"Yeah," Ms. Willis said, "put down three."
Meanwhile, there's room at the Canter ranch. On Friday Ms. Rorke reported that Big Boy Slew was set to go to a new home and Kaaabang's sale was in the works. She said, "We're checking the buyer's references now."