From Tornadoes To Auctions, Thoroughbred Athletes Is There For OTTBs

To live in Tornado Alley is to be prepared to move quickly to safety and, after the tornado passes by, to reassemble what can be saved. No community knows that better than Seminole, Okla., which was hit but not one but two tornadoes within a few days in May 2022. The town and outlying areas were devastated by successive EF 1 tornadoes on May 2 and May 4, 2022.

May 2022: EF Won 

After the second tornado, a 2-year-old Thoroughbred colt was found with life-threatening injuries as the lacerations on the colt’s legs went to the bone. At the clinic where he was taken for treatment, the vets shook their heads as they cleaned and stitched his wounds, knowing he would need many months of careful tending if he were to recover.

As the colt fought for his life, Lynn Sullivan’s organization, Thoroughbred Athletes Inc., was called upon to help provide care, and she didn’t hesitate to become the colt’s biggest advocate.

Sullivan also had an opportunity to talk with the colt’s elderly owner just a few hours before the owner’s death, which was unrelated to the tornado. Sullivan offered reassurance that the colt would always be safe in the Thoroughbred Athlete’s Inc. care. Sullivan was also allowed to name the colt.

“He stared down a tornado and won,” she said. “He’d earned his name: EF Won.”

EF Won after extensive rehabilitation. Photo courtesy Thoroughbred Athletes

July 2022: Closing American

Like the tornados that batter Oklahoma, the horse slaughter pipeline is a constant threat. At the end of June, Sullivan’s group identified a Thoroughbred named Closing American who was caught in the vortex.

According to Equibase, the bay gelding had done well in three of his eight races during his first year on the track, earning a first, a second, and a third. He never hit the board again over the next two and a half years of racing.

On June 25, his trainer, Martin. M. Meza, entered him in a claiming race at Evangeline Downs, thinking someone might pay $5,000 for him. No one did. Closing American was six years old, gelded, and dead last in the race.

A few weeks later, the horse that no one had wanted at Evangeline Downs turned up in a kill pen at an auction in Bastrop, La. A kill buyer had set Closing American’s purchase price at $1,850. If the kill buyer didn’t get his price, well, there’s always another auction on another day. Eventually, Closing American would be worth something to someone even if they ended up being a buyer for a foreign meat market where he might bring between $400 and $600.

Closing American in November 2022. Photo courtesy Thoroughbred Athletes

The Kill Pen Economy 

Those who follow Thoroughbred rescue/rehoming on social media may have seen pleas for help to raise money to bail a horse. This is how it works: Kill buyers attend auctions looking for good deals on horses nobody wants. They hold these horses in pens until they have enough to make up a load on a livestock truck bound for the meat markets in Canada or Mexico. This is called a kill pen, and the horses in that pen are at the mouth of the slaughter pipeline.

Anyone who wants to rescue a horse from the kill pen is welcome to try. In fact, a kill buyer often deliberately acquires a horse that will catch the eye of horse rescue groups. The price the kill buyer wants is called “bail” which is often raised on social media networks by rescues who feel they have two choices: pay the fee or lose the horse.

As reported in the Paulick Report, The Kill Pen Economy: Why the Pipeline is So Hard to Shut Off, this practice has become a new and profitable income stream for kill buyers who can sell threatened horses out of their pens to private buyers and rescue organizations for much higher prices than what the meat market will pay. Worse, good-intentioned people are scammed when the horse is never actually rescued by anyone but travels from auction to auction, being resold until the horse eventually disappears for good.

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As the word about Closing American’s situation spread on social media. Sullivan’s Thoroughbred Athlete’s Inc. organization offered a place to the gelding if the purchase price could be raised. Donations toward his purchase went directly to Thoroughbred Athletes, Inc, a rescue group supported by the EQUUS Foundation, two nationally-recognized Thoroughbred organizations, and two Oklahoma racing organizations. Thanks to some good-hearted people, the ride Closing American took from the Bastrop, La., auction was not to another auction or a foreign meat market. He was on his way to the Oklahoma ranch that is the home of Thoroughbred Athletes Inc. in a horse trailer brought to Bastrop by the organization’s volunteers. No extra transport costs or quarantine fees would be paid to the kill buyer.

When Closing American had finished his quarantine under Lynn’s supervision, she introduced him to a previously rescued gelding — Nomorequestions. They were the same age, had the same sire, earned the same amount of money, and raced for the same amount of time but were in different barns.

“Somehow, they knew each other,” Sullivan said. “They are definitely bonded.”

She shakes her head.

“Their sire is well known, especially in the sport horse world. These two might have had an easy transition to a second career.”

In fact, Closing American was already attracting interest from prospective adopters.

September 2022: Claudette’s Glitter

At the summer’s end, Sullivan began planning a vacation to Florida. Her volunteers were more than prepared to give her a much-needed break to visit family, grab some beach time, and maybe see some old racing friends. As Sullivan boarded her flight, weather forecasters were talking up a storm that eventually became Hurricane Ian. This Category 4 storm slammed into the west coast of Florida and then roared off for another landfall in South Carolina.

While helping her family prepare for Hurricane Ian, Lynn received word of a 3-year- old Thoroughbred filly caught in the slaughter pipeline.

Claudette’s Glitter in the auction pen. Photo courtesy Thoroughbred Athletes

Gentry Farms had bred Claudette’s Glitter. Her mane was tidy. The holes in her hooves were clearly visible from recently being shod. She’d been prepared for better things than a pen at Jones Livestock Auction in Jones, Okla. She was thin, frightened, and bruised. Claudette’s Glitter had clearly been the loser in confrontations with other horses.

Again, Sullivan and her group didn’t hesitate. This time they were ahead of the kill buyers.

“We got her,” she said, adding that they were able to buy the filly from the auction floor for a much lower price than they would have had to pay the kill buyer.

Lynn tried not to let her heart break, but she couldn’t help this time.

“She’s just a baby,” she said. “A sweet, gentle baby.”

The newspaper USA Today reported in 2019 that the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) estimated that 7,500 Thoroughbreds a year are sent through the slaughter pipeline to either Mexico or Canada. In 2021, The Paulick Report estimated that each meat horse was worth between $400 and $600. Being away from the border does not save a horse sent to auction. The New Holland, Pennsylvania auction is as notorious as Bastrop or Jones.

The racing industry has long recognized kill buying as a serious issue. It encourages racehorse owners and trainers to responsibly retire their horses to accredited organizations such as Thoroughbred Athletes Inc. These fortunate Thoroughbreds are screened for any medical problems and then gently introduced to a new discipline and a potential new owner without having to go through the physical and emotional trauma of an auction environment. All rescued and retired racehorses adopted through Lynn’s organization always go to their adoptive owners with a no-sale clause. If the new owner finds they cannot keep the horse, it must come back to Thoroughbred Athletes Inc.

“We always take them back.” Sullivan states.

At her ranch, Sullivan takes a breath, enjoying the sight of a much healthier Closing American happily hanging out with his new friend. Claudette’s Glitter is also recovering both physically and mentally. At the end of tornado season, the future of EF Won, the colt that beat a tornado, is much brighter.

Lynn is hopeful that gentle rains will come in the fall and winter will be mild.

“We had a week to prepare for Hurricane Ian,” she said wistfully. “Sometimes there are only seconds before a tornado hits.”

She is being asked to accept more horses than she had expected in 2022, but, for the moment, there are no storms on her horizon.

To learn more about EF Won, Closing American, Claudette’s Glitter, and the work of the organization that saved them and many other horses, visit @Thoroughbred Athletes, Inc. or visit their website: www.thoroughbred-athletes.com.

Elizabeth Janoski writes about the work of Thoroughbred aftercare organizations as a way to pay forward the soft landing of her OTTB mare into aftercare. Her most recent book is Emergence: Wayfinding through Art in cooperation with artist Chris Lathrop. When not hanging about a horse barn, she teaches English at Southern New Hampshire University. She may be reached on Facebook @ Elizabeth’s Shipmeadow.  

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