Cosequin Presents Aftercare Spotlight: A Sustainable Path From Racetrack To Retirement

Pennsylvania has one of the most active racing and breeding jurisdictions in the country. The state has not one, but two racetracks with year-round live racing – Penn National and Parx – plus Presque Isle Downs, which runs throughout the summer. While many PA-breds spend their entire careers racing exclusively at the two year-round tracks, Parx and Penn National are also often where horses whose careers have spanned the country make their final starts, usually in mid- to lower-level claiming races.

The last two weeks we’ve shined a spotlight on the innovative aftercare programs at Penn National (New Start) and Parx Racing (Turning for Home). These racetrack-based and supported aftercare organizations work with the tracks, taking in a nominal fee from every start made, and through a robust network of veterinarians and foster facilities, are able to take in horses directly from trainers. The groups give the horses soundness and general health examinations and place them into foster facilities to be retrained and adopted out to equestrians who are in the market for a new horse.

Programs like New Start and Turning for Home would not be possible without support from the horsemen, and this week that is our focus. As longtime trainer Phil Aristone described it, these programs and the people involved with them, including program directors Lauren Zagnit (New Start) and Danielle Montgomery (Turning for Home), have changed the culture on the backsides of Parx and Penn National.

“Before these programs existed, when people had a horse that was no longer profitable, there was nowhere for them to go. Horsemen simply didn’t know what to do with them,” said Aristone, who has donated at least 15 horses to the two programs at the conclusion of their racing careers. “[Montgomery and Zagnit] have done a good job getting to know the trainers and educating them about the process. These programs give trainers a place to take their horses and peace of mind knowing they’re doing the right thing. Trainers are not as quick to squeeze the last dollar out of the horse because they understand the bigger picture. The entire process has changed our industry.”

Aristone, who sits on the board of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, which played a primary role in developing Turning for Home and oversees the program, has built his career on the backs of Pennsylvania-bred and raced horses. Since registering his initial victory as a trainer with his first lifetime starter at Keystone Racetrack (now operating as Parx), Aristone, has amassed a record of 1,573 wins from 11,691 starts, with an in-the-money percentage of 41% and in 2014, he was inducted into the Parx Racing Hall of Fame.

In short, he understands the Pennsylvania racing business on a level few others ever will.

“I’ve been in a racing family my whole life,” said Aristone. “My father was a trainer and my brother was a jockey. As a trainer I know a lot of the people on these horses in the mornings and afternoons. Running a sore horse is not only unfair to the horse, but it can get people seriously hurt… when the welfare of the horse is put above all else, that’s doing the right thing and everything else falls into place as it should.”

Aristone says he’s seen a culture change on the periphery of horseracing as well. Today when someone new to the game is considering investing in a racehorse for the first time, the questions are much different than they were decades ago.

“When new people come into this business, one of the first questions they ask is what happens to the horse when it’s finished racing,” said Aristone, who enjoys following the progress of his horses in their off-track careers. “That’s a good thing.”

That question is one that longtime Pennsylvania owner/breeder Judith Johnson has been asking since she got into the business. Johnston breeds to Pennsylvania stallions, raises her horses in the Keystone State and races them almost exclusively at Parx and Penn National. She has also utilized both tracks’ aftercare programs to retire and rehome her horses.

“These racetrack-sponsored types of programs should be the model for aftercare programs because they do not rely solely on donations. Every owner has a stake in supporting the retirement of their horses, and the more horses one has, the greater the responsibility [they bear],” said Johnston. “I hope other tracks are paying attention to what is being done with these programs and will emulate it. These types of programs provide an immediate resource for horsemen who need to retire their horses and helps to ensure that the horses are screened and monitored.”

Johnston echoed comments made by Aristone and others that prior to having the accessibility of aftercare resources on the backsides of Parx and Penn National, many horses ended up in auctions and the slaughter pipeline unintentionally. Often a trainer or owner would give a horse to someone looking for horses in need of retirement and free to a good home. The person would seem honest and horse-savvy enough; little to no money was exchanged so, in their opinion, no contract was needed; and the horse was seemingly off of their trainer’s feed and stall bills and onto a happy life after racing.

As has been demonstrated time and time again, all too often that was not the scenario that played out. Whether due to the person taking the horse being less than scrupulous or simply getting in over their head and proving unable to care for or train the horse, the horse ended up being the victim in the scenario, often changing hands again and again and ending up in an auction pen and at risk of being purchased price-per-pound for processing.

“We all know the horror stories about auctions and what can happen despite good intentions,” said Johnston. “These programs work very hard to track the horses they place… with increasing support from The Jockey Club and others, the off-track Thoroughbred is increasing in value and that, in turn, is enhancing aftercare.”

Tracks like Penn National and Parx are playing a major role in breaking the slaughter cycle as well, revoking stabling and racing privileges of horsemen found to have knowingly sold (or given) a horse into the slaughter pipeline, directly or indirectly.  

Aristone said while most trainers and horsemen want to do right by their horses and are eager to utilize the services Turning for Home and New Start provide in order to ensure a good life for their trainees after racing, the zero-tolerance slaughter policies instituted by both tracks are the safety net.

“There are always going to be a few trainers who don’t care about the horses the way myself and many others do, but with the slaughter policies, if you don’t do the right thing, the track takes your stalls away. It’s another reason for them to do the right thing,” said Aristone. “There has been a lot of positive change in Pennsylvania racing for horses, horsemen backside workers, but out of everything we’ve done, the thing I’m most proud of is the aftercare. The conversations have changed, the mentality, the education … It’s completely turned this whole business around and it’s incredibly gratifying to see.”

Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She holds board affiliations with the Make a Wish Foundation, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the Retired Racehorse Project, among others. She is the go-to food source for one dog, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.

Email Jen your story ideas at Jenlroytz@gmail.com or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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