Friday, October 8, 2010

What We Can Learn From Secretariat
October 7, 2010

What We Can Learn from Secretariat

by Scott Beckstead

The story of legendary horse Secretariat is a classic American tale: Against the odds and defying all skeptics, an underdog became a champion and national hero, inspiring millions. Disney's new movie, Secretariat promises to underscore the special role that horses occupy in the American imagination. It also presents an opportunity to celebrate all that we love about our horses and to think again about our responsibilities to these amazing creatures.

A well-earned retirement

Secretariat spent his life surrounded by a loving owner and millions of adoring fans. His owner rewarded his record-setting performance with a pampered retirement and a long, full life. And while few horses could hope for the luxuries he enjoyed, all horses deserve the opportunity he was given: a chance at a second career. In Secretariat’s case, that meant a long life as a breeding sire.

Other horses, after retiring from the track, have proved they can excel at pleasure riding, competitive show jumping, or competitive dressage.

A second career ... or slaughter?

Sadly, though, too many are never given a chance to prove themselves off the track. As long as horse slaughter remains legal in the United States, the greedy and unscrupulous will make a quick profit off horses.

Race horses, who have been trained to trust people, suffer the ultimate betrayal when they are sold at auction then trucked in terrible conditions to foreign slaughter plants, where they are killed and butchered for consumption abroad. Secretariat’s brother, Straight Flush, was awaiting the slaughter truck when rescued by a benefactor who recognized him as the brother of the red chestnut racing star. One wonders how many thousands of Secretariat’s descendants weren’t rescued from that horrible fate.

From the Derby to the slaughterhouse

Even winning the Kentucky Derby is no guarantee that a horse will be spared the horrors of the slaughter plant: witness Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby, who was butchered in a foreign slaughter plant after failing to sire winning foals.

The industry takes steps

Thankfully, the racing industry has taken some important steps to ensure the welfare of race horses. A growing number of tracks and racing associations have adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward horse slaughter, banning any trainer that sells horses for slaughter.

Other industry groups have dedicated resources to finding good homes for retired racers. The California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, for example, has created the California Equine Retirement Foundation, dedicated to making sure that every race horse gets a second chance at another career and a good, loving home.

Working toward a happy ending for all

As we celebrate Secretariat’s victories on the big screen, let’s keep in mind that for most race horses, the story does not end at the finish line or the winner’s circle. For too many, the story ends in heartbreak and tragedy.

It is our hope that with the release of this film, the American people will reflect on the effort our race horses make for us in the name of sport and entertainment—and how we will repay that effort when they step off the track for the last time.

Scott Beckstead is The HSUS’s Senior State Director for Oregon and Equine Protection Specialist

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