dirty little secret
Not all thoroughbreds retire to a grassy meadow. Many that
don't are slaughtered for human consumption.
By Rick Maese | Sentinel Staff
Posted May 23, 2004
May 23, 2004
Lary. (GEORGE SKENE/ORLANDO
May 23, 2004
Inside, dozens of horses line the stalls with just a shade of
Fanciful names only get a thoroughbred so far in horse racing. By the time a
horse gets here -- the weekly New Holland Sales Stable horse auction -- each
is reduced to a number.
The tag on one hip reads No. 154. No one knows that the gelding once was
known as Five Star General. Bred six years ago by a former Kentucky
governor, Five Star General last raced in July 2003 and earned $26,000 in
They'll never learn that here.
"$125! $125!" says the auctioneer in the small wooden booth,
rolling many words into one. "Can I get one-and-a-quarter?
One-and-a-quarter, one-a-quarter, one-a-quarter?"
Five Star General will be sold on this day and shoved into a pen with two
dozen other horses. Then he'll be loaded into a trailer and shipped 1,500
miles to a small plant just outside Fort Worth, Texas.
He will be slaughtered there, racing dreams packaged and shipped overseas.
His processed remains will be exported to Belgium or France, where the meat
will be prepared in a kitchen.
This is horse racing's dirty little secret -- the one those in the industry
traditionally have ignored and outsiders barely hear about.
In recent years, the fates of two decorated racers became public. Exceller
was an English champion more than 25 years ago, winning 15 of 33 starts --
$1.6 million in purse money. He even defeated legends such as Seattle Slew
and Affirmed. In 1997, Exceller was killed in a Swedish slaughterhouse,
becoming one of the sport's first martyrs.
Ferdinand won the 1986 Kentucky Derby and was retired to stud. He was sold
from a Kentucky farm in 1995 to a Japanese farm. He didn't produce much and
was sold to a dealer in 2002. News surfaced last year that Ferdinand was
slaughtered in late 2002.
Those are the two names that people know. There are thousands of other
racehorses that have met a similar fate. Thoroughbreds that don't cut it at
the track have to go somewhere, and the last stop isn't always a grassy
meadow. Sometimes it's a dinner plate.
The slaughter-for-human-consumption controversy has divided the horse-racing
industry. For years, it simply ignored the issue, but lately, as Congress
and courts have dug their hands into the exposed secret, horse owners,
trainers and breeders have come down on one side or the other.
Nearly 50,000 horses were slaughtered and sold overseas for human
consumption in 2003, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. An
additional 30,000 were shipped to Canada, where they were slaughtered, and
1,000 were sent to Mexico.
It generally is accepted in the horse industry that about 10 percent of the
slaughtered horses are thoroughbreds, the sleek and powerful breed usually
foaled specifically to race. For comparison, the Jockey Club, the breed
registry for thoroughbreds in North America, annually registers about 33,000
Somewhat surprisingly, groups such as the American Horse Council, the Jockey
Club and the American Veterinarians' Association have issued statements
against a legislative bill that would ban horse slaughter for human
They generally contend that it's necessary in the horse industry, and the
alternative is a surplus of unwanted horses.
In addition to the House bill, others actively are campaigning to banish
horse slaughter in the United States. A decision in the Texas Supreme Court
is expected in the coming weeks that will determine whether the country's
two remaining plants can continue operation legally. And in Illinois, local
communities are fighting to stop a new plant from opening its doors this
"We don't think it's right," says Rep. John Sweeney (R-New York).
"It's a process cloaked in covert darkness."
Horsemeat is a delicacy in some parts of northern France, southern Belgium,
Holland, Italy and Japan. Though there are horses in Europe, menus
specifically advertise "American horsemeat," as though horses here
are bred for flavor. It is also easier and cheaper to raise a horse to
maturity in the United States than much of Europe.
Horsemeat tastes like beef, with a fine, game-like texture and is lower in
fat and cholesterol. It is legal to eat horse in the United States, except
in the few states that have specific laws that state otherwise, such as
California, Texas and Illinois.
Though the number of horses slaughtered has risen in the past two years, it
has dropped dramatically since 1990. The issue has boiled into a
controversy, slowly growing from muted whisper at the track to a debate that
has split horse owners into two factions.
"It's a touchy subject," says Richard Hancock, the executive vice
president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association.
"People come from a lot of different points of view. While it's
offensive and repulsive for me to think about eating a horse, in Europe and
other countries, they have a different viewpoint. It just depends on how
you're raised. We've probably got as wide a view within our industry as any
Horses for cheap
Officials with the weekly auction in New Holland, Pa., don't welcome the
attention, but the horse-slaughter issue is perhaps most extant here.
This is where fates are sealed.
Every Monday afternoon in this small town -- mostly sprawling farmland in
the middle of Amish country -- families come to buy a pet for their
children, Amish farmers buy horses to pull their plows, ranchers look for
horses to work. And horse dealers show up looking to scrape the bottom of
the barrel, taking the horse industry's castoffs.
About 200 horses are pulled out of the cramped stalls on either side of the
auditorium area. Each horse is walked or ridden down a narrow dirt runway,
put on display for the group in attendance.
The building is like a giant shed. The stench is only made worse by the
heat, which barely is affected by the old fans slowly spinning high above.
The auctioneer isn't polished and usually can tell you only the age of a
horse and its tag number. But the price tag is usually cheap. Although many
horse auctions have minimum bids (at the Ocala Breeders Sale, it's $1,000),
here most horses sell for a few hundred dollars.
A horse is escorted down the runway, and as the auctioneer begins calling
out numbers in rapid-fire succession, an Amish man in the narrow pen watches
for bids. He has a thick beard but no moustache; a white straw hat, black
pants and suspenders that climb over his shoulders.
Once the bidding nears $500, the Amish man becomes more animated as he tells
the auctioneer a new bid has come in.
"Hey-yeah!" he shouts, punching the air like a home-plate umpire.
Parked outside are trucks, horse-drawn buggies and long trailers. The 200
people gathered on wooden bleachers inside are just as eclectic. Aging
farmers sit next to young women. Old Amish men play checkers in a small room
near the entrance. Included in the weekly gathering are two men known as
"killer buyers." They make a living buying horses for cheap and
selling them to the two Texas slaughterhouses.
Those selling horses -- someone who no longer needs a riding horse, someone
who's closing a farm, someone who needs the money -- at the auction often
don't realize who is doing the bidding. The regulars here recognize the
killer buyers, but those who show up only occasionally have no idea.
Most of the buyers choose not to bid on the thoroughbreds. Because of the
way racehorses are trained and broken, bidders often think it's too
difficult to retrain racers for life on a farm.
A 7-year-old mare with a shiny brown coat is walked in front of the crowd.
Her name is Meadow Bryte, and she was born in Ocala. The bidding doesn't
last long, not like in past sales. Meadow Bryte once was valued, having sold
for $375,000 at the 1998 Fasig-Tipton sale.
She went for $82,000 in the 1999 Keeneland Breeding Stock sale -- and for
$51,000 last November at the same Keeneland sale.
In New Holland, she sells for $450 and is taken to one of two "killer
pens," where she joins a half-dozen other horses doomed on this day to
2 slaughterhouses remain
Fifty years ago, there were more than 30 equine slaughterhouses operating in
the United States. The number dropped to about 15 in the 1980s, to four in
1999 and today to just two.
Bel Tex, a Belgian-owned plant in Fort Worth, and Dallas Crown, a
Dutch-owned plant in Kaufman, Texas, are fighting for survival. The decline
in processing plants over the years largely is attributed to a movement
among American pet-food makers to wean dogs and cats off horsemeat after
facing a backlash from concerned pet owners.
The two plants, which combine to employ 140 workers, still seem to be
profitable. Every week, killer buyers fill a quota of horses and ship them
into Texas by the trailer-load.
The dealers are paid 35 to 50 cents per pound. (Most thoroughbreds stand
more than 5 feet tall and weigh about 1,000 pounds.) The horses are
slaughtered here and exported overseas for $1.38 a pound. The meat sells in
France for $7-$10 per pound.
According to the most recent figures available, about 13,000 metric tons
were shipped in 2001, more than $40 million worth. A European organization
called the Ethical Association of the Horse maintains that more than 300,000
horses are consumed annually in France. There are more than 1,000 horse
butchers there, though most agree that horse consumption has decreased since
the mad-cow scare.
Officials for the two horse slaughter plants declined to grant the Orlando
Sentinel access to their facilities. But a Dallas attorney, who
represents the companies in lawsuits that seek to shut them down, says horse
slaughter is not unlike a plant that processes any other type of livestock.
"The only difference is that horses are not raised for the purpose of
slaughter," says David Broiles, who has been fighting a state attorney
general's ruling for the past two years that seeks to close the plants.
"A horse gets to live some type of life first."
The process that awaits condemned horses in Bel Tex and Dallas Crown is not
A horse is put in a cramped pen that limits its movement. A worker then will
lean over the horse and shoot a four-inch retractable bolt into its head.
Horses cannot be killed in the slaughterhouses with lethal injections
because the toxic chemicals would poison the meat.
The stunned horse is picked up by a giant claw and moved down an assembly
line. It is decapitated and then hung so it can be drained. The horse's
beating heart pumps all of the blood out of the body. The horse then moves
along the line where it is stripped of its hide and quartered.
The process is approved by the American Veterinarians' Association.
"People don't think about where food comes from," Broiles says.
"They like to think it just comes out of a box. If you were to walk
them through it, they might be shocked. But these plants are stainless
steel. They're pretty high quality, and we have inspectors all around, real
organized skill workers."
Critics say otherwise, but Broiles says that USDA-licensed inspectors are
on-site at all times.
Some get a reprieve
The animals funnel into the New Holland auction by 10 a.m., and five hours
later, they'll leave in different directions.
Sellers and buyers at the auction have been cited by the Pennsylvania State
Police and the New Holland police for animal abuse and neglect. They've also
been cited for allowing horses to be shipped in double-decker trailers,
which typically are designed for short-neck livestock.
By 3 p.m., new owners load their purchases onto their trailers. In the back,
there is a pile of animals that died during the course of the day: a large
sheep, a couple of cows, a couple of pigs. A euthanized horse will be there
by day's end.
Back inside, the two killer pens hold about 25 horses apiece. There are some
quarterhorses and some Arabians, but also thoroughbreds like Five Star
General and Meadow Bryte.
Kelly Young, who lives in nearby Jacobus, Pa., spotted a thoroughbred in one
pen, not far from Meadow Bryte.
"I just saw something in his eye," she says later. Young runs Lost
and Found Horse Rescue, which specializes in saving horses that are headed
Despite her outspoken contempt for them, Young has a working relationship
with some of the killer buyers. She says she's been able to save more than
100 horses and place them in homes that want a pet or a riding horse.
On this day, she purchased Lieing Lary, a 6-year-old gelding, for $500 -- a
quick $50 profit for the killer buyer. Many buyers first try to sell their
doomed purchases to those who might make use of the horse. They can make
more money this way.
Young loaded Lieing Lary into her trailer and noticed a treatment ointment
on one of his legs.
"He recently raced," she says. "He was hurt."
Young was right. Lieing Lary had raced just three weeks earlier in West
Virginia. He hit the guard rail and finished in last place in a $5,000
Lieing Lary, a grandson of Secretariat foaled in Kentucky, had made 43
starts -- one victory, five second-place finishes and five third-place
finishes -- and had career earnings of $50,161. But that guardrail meant he
would need months of rehabilitation, time he would be costing money, not
earning it. To keep a horse in training, an owner has to pay anywhere from
$25 a day to more than $100.
He was sold -- still wearing his lightweight racing shoes -- his career
"What I think about mostly is how great they were treated at one time
and how there was all this hope and aspiration," says Young. "They
were treated like superstars until they fail. Suddenly, they're not worth
anything. For no good reason, they're treated like a hunk of meat."
Young only can save one horse on this day. Nearly 50 of them will receive no
It's a numbers game
Thoroughbreds are pumped out of Ocala, which bills itself as the "Horse
Capital of the World." Outside of Kentucky, Ocala produces more
racehorses than anywhere in the country.
"Everybody here loves horses," says Hancock, the head of the
state's Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association.
Florida has nearly 300,000 horses, and the horse industry here annually
generates product valued at $2.2 billion. With more than 600 farms producing
solely thoroughbreds, many more horses are foaled in Florida than can
compete at the track. Breeders say they simply can't keep all of the horses
"You have to remember there's a commercial side to it," says Eric
Hamelback. He's the general manager of Live Oak Stud, the Ocala farm that
seven years ago foaled Meadow Bryte, the mare bought at New Holland and sent
He doesn't like to hear about horses going to slaughter but says,
"There's no way we can control a horse after it's sold."
Sweeney, the representative from New York, was so horrified with the idea of
Europeans eating American horses that he drafted a bill that would outlaw
the slaughter. He has nearly 200 co-sponsors and says it could go before the
full House by year's end.
During the next two weeks, headlines across the country will trumpet the
possibility of a Triple Crown winner. This time of year is the pinnacle of
the horse-racing season, when legends are carved from the Kentucky Derby and
the Preakness and the Belmont. It's when racing is at its finest and when
slaughter for human consumption doesn't seem to exist.
The sport and the industry survive not just because of the champions that
are remembered forever but because of the losers that are easy to forget.
Rick Maese can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org