Originally published May 5, 2006
Louisville, Ky. // Horse racing
Only once has my life ever been threatened.
I was reporting a story in Ocala, Fla., a city that calls itself the horse capital of the world, and had granted anonymity to an interview subject. The man who had threatened me thought his life would be in danger if I revealed his identity.
He was a modern-day cowboy in that he patrolled his land with a golf cart and in his holster was a cell phone. He made his living as a "killer buyer," which means he's not only the executioner's right-hand man, but he's also a crucial cog in the gruesome reality tainting the underbelly of a beautiful sport. It's the part of horse racing you don't hear about.
The killer buyer purchases horses - often thoroughbreds at the end of their racing careers - and sells them to slaughterhouses. The slaughterhouses then kill the animals and ship them overseas, where horse is consumed as food. Horsemeat is a staple in some foreign diets.
Two years have passed since I first learned horses were slaughtered for human consumption ... since I visited the Amish horse auctions where killer buyers load up their trailers with failed race horses ... since I visited with trainers and breeders and legislators. And I'm sad to report that not a lot has changed.
This week marks the 20th anniversary of Ferdinand's amazing photo-finish win at the Kentucky Derby. Ferdinand has become somewhat of a posterhorse for the issue. It's widely believed that when Ferdinand failed as a stud, he was killed in a Japanese slaughterhouse, those powerful legs and lean body sold as food to butchers.
Horsemeat is a delicacy on menus in some countries. With a game-like texture, horse is said to taste like beef. It is legal to eat in the United States, except in the few states that have passed laws stating otherwise (such as California, Texas and Illinois).
Two years ago, I was helped by Mary Nash. Mary was a nice woman who lived in a small Texas town called Kaufman. She grew up with a horse named Buttercup. The land next to her home is where Dallas Crown operated. Mary explained to me that Dallas Crown, owned by a Belgian family, was a slaughterhouse, the largest exporter of horsemeat in the country.
The stench, the noise, the occasional bloody overturned trailer - it was too much for Mary, and she was leading a passionate charge against horse slaughter.
Mary, along with a handful of activist groups, successfully forced the matter to Capitol Hill, where a bill was under consideration.
"Most people don't know that it's even going on," Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican, said this week, "and they're all shocked when they find out. ... Unlike other animals, horses were never raised or bred for human consumption."
Whitfield has been trying to push through legislation that would ban the slaughter of horses for human food. Unfortunately, it's been an uphill battle. A bill was first introduced seven years ago by Connie Morella, the former representative from Maryland. Congress too often resembles the schoolyard, though, and a couple of political bullies made sure the bill stayed in committee.
"We've been very frustrated because there is broad support," Whitfield said. "A few people are thwarting what I think is the overwhelming sentiment of the American people that we stop it."
And while the bill has been stuck in political gridlock, tens of thousands of horses have been senselessly slaughtered. (Some estimates say as many as 85,000 were killed last year.) The killer buyers anonymously visit horse auctions. They load dozens onto their trailers. They drop them off at one of the three slaughterhouses still operating.
There, a horse is held in a small pen and a 4-inch retractable bolt is shot into its head. A giant claw picks up the animal and moves it down an assembly line, where it is decapitated. The horse's heart continues to beat, pumping all of the blood out of its body. It is then stripped of its hide and quartered.
It's a sad story. These are athletes, bred, bought and trained to be champions.
Even sadder, the fight against horse slaughter has lost one of its most outspoken advocates. Mary Nash, the Texas woman who'd helped me, died last summer from complications related to lung cancer. She didn't live long enough to learn of her life's biggest victory.
In March, the city of Kaufman ordered the Dallas Crown slaughterhouse to close down. It's what Mary's fight was all about. (The slaughterhouse is fighting the order in court.)
Even better news: Legislators have re-crafted their bill, putting it under another committee's jurisdiction and making it a near-certainty that it will reach the floor for a vote. Whitfield says he hopes there will be some movement to announce in the next few weeks.
It's about time. In tomorrow's Kentucky Derby, the whole nation will tune in to behold the beauty and power of the racehorse.
We know that it's business as much as sport, but horses deserve better treatment. There are millions of dollars spent on breeding and training and raising horses. We're more than willing to love them at the beginning of their lives. It's too bad we don't put more resources into protecting them at the end.
Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog