Saving the few from a shameful exit

RACING: What fate awaits thoroughbreds after they have come to the end of their careers on the track? In the first of a two-part investigation , Greg Wood finds that a minority of ex-racers are rehabilitated to begin new lives as hacks
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Imagine a maximum 40-runner field in the Grand National, running towards the first fence. Now multiply by 60, so this great galloping mass stretches back to the starter and beyond. What you are looking at is the total number of racehorses which leave training each year.

Or rather, it is a rough estimate of that total. An accurate account does not exist. Weatherbys, the organisation which monitors Britain's racing population with all the comprehensive efficiency of a police state, does not keep a record of the numbers leaving the sport. But since the current total of horses registered in training is almost 13,000, a figure which remains fairly static, and that about 2,500 juveniles join the list each year, it seems reasonable to assume that a similar number are leaving. But leaving for where?

There is no shortage of possible destinations. Some jumpers will move down a grade, and join the point-to-point circuit or go hunting. Flat horses might be exported to race in a country better suited to their ability. "It always amazes me how they all get spread about and where they get to when they do get sold," Joss Collins, of the British Bloodstock Agency, says. "We buy for Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Hungary, Norway, those sort of places, and our horses win a lot of races out there." Mares in particular will find a new career as parents. Others, whose owner or trainer can accommodate them, will enjoy a peaceful retirement.

For some, however, the future will be less certain. "Thoroughbreds are highly-strung animals which need a lot of care and attention," Sarah Bligh, of the International League for the Protection of Horses, says. "They're not horses that you can just winter out the whole time, and they need a lot of feeding and a lot of keep, so they often become the victims of neglect. There will be some very severe sights in this country on this very day." And there is another possible final destination for retired thoroughbreds, in the horsemeat markets of France and Belgium, a subject examined in greater detail tomorrow.

The great shame of the neglect of ex-racehorses is that, though they may be expensive and demanding, many people in the equine world are ignorant of their potential for a life after racing. It is a problem which Ian McAlpine, who runs a riding centre near Guildford called Hacking With A Difference, is trying hard to address.

"I didn't start out to be some sort of crusader," McAlpine says. "I'm getting on for 50 and I only rode for the first time 10 years ago. But when I wanted to buy my own horse I had this suspicion that people were selling them with the teeth knocked out and so on, so the ones you buy are twice as old as they're meant to be.

"Then I realised that if I bought an ex-racehorse, it would have all its papers and I would know its full history, and that's how I came by my first one. We started the business about four years ago and we've never had anything but thoroughbreds. They're the cheapest to buy, and with some sensible re-schooling and a bit of patience they work very well."

Amateur riders who have stood by a running rail and watched a racer pound its way to the post might fear that only an Eddery or Dunwoody can keep them under control, but McAlpine's re-education ensures that his customers enjoy a ride which is both exhilarating and safe. "It's a shame there's so much ignorance," he says. "It's like greyhounds. My girlfriend used to rescue them and I'd always thought they were snappy, nasty things, but in fact they're the softest things you could find. I meet people who are looking to spend untold amounts on horses but wouldn't consider having an ex-racehorse, but once they're suitably schooled they're as good as anything else, and a lot better in many cases."

His beliefs are echoed by Carrie Humble, whose Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre at Kendal in Cumbria is "the only registered charity in the country, and in the world probably, for thoroughbred ex-racehorses." Like McAlpine, Humble re-schools her horses, before finding them a suitable home (though they remain the Centre's property at all times). "The main problem for ex-racehorses is that they have nowhere to go," Humble says. "They are the Ferraris of the horse world, and you can't give a Ferrari to someone who's only had nine lessons in a Capri."

Humble's Centre depends wholly on donations, and will handle only a tiny fraction of the horses leaving training ("I've got seven right now," she says. "I get no salary, I've got two other girls who work for no salary, and it's a 70-hour week.") After spending several years trying to defy impossible odds, she has some strong and, for many in racing, uncomfortable opinions on the structure of the industry.

"The vast majority of the horses I get are youngsters which have been raced at two and three and have tendon or ligament problems," she says. "I personally am vehemently opposed to the racing of two-year-olds, its a wholly commercial thing to do, but of course I'm whistling in the wind as far as that goes because a great deal of British racing is based on running youngsters.

"But it means that you have a huge burn-out rate. People will argue that they have been bred for it or that thoroughbreds mature at a different rate and have a different bone structure. It's all nonsense."

The horses at Humble's rehabilitation centre, and the dozen or so at Hacking With A Difference, are among the most fortunate of the thousands who leave the country's training yards each season. There will be others - hundreds, possibly more - which are never even registered with a trainer and so, as far as racing's authorities are concerned, do not exist. For some, life after racing will be either short, painful - or both.

Hacking With A Difference, (0483) 200227. The Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre, 4 Crook Lea, Kendal, Cumbria LA9 4Q, (0539) 733566.

TOMORROW: The meat market in horseflesh