Horse racing's 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 Writer
Posted May 23, 2004
  • TODAY: Racehorses past their prime have to be dealt with somehow, and their final days often aren't spent in a grassy meadow or at a farm. They're slaughtered and shipped overseas, where horsemeat is a staple.
  • MONDAY: With more than 450 farms across Marion County, Ocala is entrenched in the horse business. While most of the equine community breeds horses and deals with them at the start of life, one rogue dealer there sees them at the end. He took over the "killer buyer" business from his father years ago.
    Last ride.
    May 23, 2004
    Lucky Lary.
    May 23, 2004
    Beginning of the end.
    Beginning of the end. (GEORGE SKENE/ORLANDO SENTINEL)
    May 23, 2004

    Inside, dozens of horses line the stalls with just a shade of wiggle room.

    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 his career.

    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 new foals.

    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 consumption.

    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 month.

    "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 other issue."

    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 death.

    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 pretty.

    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 to slaughter.

    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 claiming race.

    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 entirely spent.

    "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 second chance.

    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 around.

    "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 to slaughter.

    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