2013-08-01 / Local & State

Pa. Woman Runs Farm To Save Horses From Slaughter

By Diana Lasko


MCCLELLANDTOWN, Pa. (AP) – When they’re no longer the front runner, racehorses can face a bleak future. A German Township woman is changing the fate for some animals nearing the homestretch of their racing careers.

Vicki Vicheck operates The Thoroughbred Connection, a racehorse rescue farm, for the sole purpose of giving race horses respite and a safe home when they are no longer able to win and bring in cash.

“ They can’t speak for themselves and someone has to help them,’’ said Vicheck. “The horses look like, `please help me.’’’

The Adah woman’s efforts began in 2006 while watching her own horse race at Thistledown in Cleveland. At the end of the meet she saw horses being loaded onto a “ kill truck’’ after which, she explained, they would be taken to auction where a broker would try to resell the animal – if the horse cannot be sold it is crammed onto a cattle trailer and taken to Canada or Mexico for slaughter.

“I knew my horses were safe, but what could I do for the other ones that were dying or breaking down in the truck because some trainers are greedy?’’ she asked.

Vicheck came home from the track that day with her horse, Northern Gala, and four others.

A thoroughbred’s life as a racehorse begins while still a foal, when it is taken from its mother to begin a training regimen. As a yearling, the horse is auctioned off to a trainer, where it will train on average for a year and begin its racing career between 2 and 3 years of age, which critics say is too young as their frames are not developed enough for the rigors of training and racing.

On average, horses race about three years before being retired. Some mares and studs are retired for breeding, but many won’t find lush pastures at the end of their racing careers.

Since 2004, hundreds of thousands of thoroughbred horses and foals in the U.S. have been sent to slaughter and their meat shipped to Europe and Asia for human consumption, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

Even before the rescue farm got its official start, Vichek had already rescued several horses from what HSUS calls the “slaughter pipeline.’’

The Thoroughbred Connection Inc. was formally formed in July 2011, when Vichek rescued Cracked Cup, a 20-year-old gelding.

“A friend from California followed Cracked Cup from rescue to rescue and called me to take him. He was featured in a racing magazine as the horse no one wanted,’’ said Vichek.

Cracked Cup earned a mere $36,131 in his racing career, far less than Vicheck’s other rescue Grafton, which earned over $353,000.

Both are now retired to pastures at the rescue farm.

Among Vichek’s rescues of well-known ancestry is Chill Out, the granddaughter of Spectacular Bid; Default Judgment, granddaughter of Seattle Slew; and Plasma Beam, sired by Smarty Jones. The combined earnings of the retired rescues are more than $1 million.

Vichek receives requests from racing stables to rescue, rehabilitate and rehome race horses which are injured or past their prime.

“I take many horses directly from trainers, so they won’t get to a broker, which would essentially end their lives,’’ said Vichek.

Rescues like The Thoroughbred Connection are serving a greater effort for a safety network for horses, discarded because their earning potential is no longer as great.

“Ultimately what drives the sport is money. It’s one of those things where you have good players and bad players,’’ said Valerie Pringle, equine protection specialist, HSUS.

Pringle said many racetracks and trainers have set up safe stalls and different funding mechanisms for rescuers like Vichek to save the horses from demise.

“There are many wonderful rescues that are doing the work saving them from slaughter,’’ said Pringle. “Thoroughbreds are wonderfully athletic horses and can be retrained to do almost anything.’’

Vichek works closely with a training center in Louisville, Ky., which has horses that run at Turfway, Churchhill Downs, Mountaineer, Beulah Park, Penn National, Presque Isle, and Thistledown.

“Right now there are many more waiting to come,’’ said Vichek.

When horses arrive at The Thoroughbred Connection, Vichek immediately assesses the horse’s needs and has it re-shoed and begins the retraining and sometimes rehabilitation process.

“A lot of these horses have never seen the outside world other than a racetrack. It takes them time to get adjusted to outside life,’’ Vichek said.

According to Pringle, the acclimation process for former racehorses depends on how the horse was handled by previous owners, how hard the horse was ridden, and the level of force used in the horse’s previous training.

Vichek has discovered for racehorses who know little beyond trailers, stalls and racetracks, it takes time to get them adjusted to a new life.

The Thoroughbred Connection is a labor of love for Vichek, who gets by with just a handful of volunteers. The cost, however, to care for the more than 24 horses is great. Hay, feed and bedding costs alone are nearly $2,000 a month, she said, and veterinarian costs can be staggering for the horses if they are in any way injured or require special medical attention.

Among the items on its wish-list, Vichek said she is constantly in need of items such as feed, hay, baled shavings, buckets, fly spray, water proof blankets, fencing posts and supplies, heat lamps and volunteer assistance. Vichek said there are other ways to help with information found at www.thethoroughbredconnec tion.org.

With a bit of help from her 6-year- old daughter, Gaby, Vichek builds trust with the horses and decides whether the horses are suitable for adoption.

“They need to get used to the fact that you’re not going to hurt them,’’ she said.

Adoption and re-homing of the horses is done on a very selective basis. The adoption fee is $250 and adoptive owners enter into a legal agreement that horses can never again be raced or auctioned. The new owner must also agree to not sell the horse for a certain period of time and if the horse is eventually sold, the paperwork from the rescue farm must follow the animal.

Vichek follows up with new owners and asks them to keep her updated on the progress of the horse.

“I have success stories of horses injured through racing that can now be saddled, ridden and some can jump,’’ said Vichek.

To date, The Thoroughbred Connection has rehomed 38 horses.

Vichek currently has 22 horses, six of her own, a yearling and a foal. Many of the horses are available for adoption while others, like 23-year-old Cracked Cup, will live out his days in Vichek’s pasture.

“Sometimes they get a taste of freedom and they just want to be left alone to enjoy it.’’

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