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Second Life - ReRun offers happy retirement for racehorses

Susan Van Dongen

They are some of the most hardworking and gifted athletes in the sporting world. Yet, when they retire, life isn’t guaranteed to be easy. Don’t even think about endorsement deals or theme restaurants for these athletes — retirement might instead mean a trip to the slaughterhouse.

We’re talking about racehorses. Thoroughbred racing is a thrilling sport for those who love it, but a sad secret for the horses themselves.

”The industry is breeding approximately 37,000 foals a year, hoping to raise the next champion and not all of those 37,000 make it to the track,” says Christine Filion Orman, resource development manager for ReRun Inc., the nonprofit, all-volunteer Thoroughbred adoption program. “One or 2 percent get that really high-ranking horse status, and they retire to a luxury life. But then there are the majority, the racehorses who can no longer race, or they’re not performing well, or maybe they’re just getting old.

”Now, to their owners, they’ve become an expense that isn’t earning its keep,” she continues. “They’ll be mostly sold to auction, but those of us in the know realize, especially if the horse is injured, it’ll go straight to a kill buyer. No one is going to buy an injured horse (to keep) — they buy the horses to sell to the slaughter house.”

In 1996, animal lovers Shon Wylie and Lori Neagle saw a need for a program to offer racehorses more options for a happier retirement. They founded ReRun in central Kentucky, focusing on rehabilitation of the horses, finding them permanent adoptive homes.

The concept is that when a racehorse’s racing days are over, it can be retrained to go on and lead a productive life in other forms of equitation, sometimes enjoying 20 or more years of companionship with its adoptive family. This “retrain and adopt out” model became so successful, ReRun spread to chapters in New York and New Jersey.

”ReRun was the first organization to put the idea out there that Thoroughbreds can be retrained to do other forms of horse (activities), like dressage,” Ms. Filion Orman says. “Other retirement places would hold the horses forever, but we work to retrain them. We take them in, detox them and calm them down — and then find them a good home.”

To raise awareness of this nationally recognized organization, as well as the plight of unwanted racehorses, ReRun will be sponsoring its Seventh Annual Thoroughbred Charity Horse Show at the Horse Park of New Jersey in Allentown Sept. 27.

The show’s primary purpose is to demonstrate the capabilities of ex-racehorses to be re-trained and excel in other forms of equitation. For the first time, the all-day show will include open classes for all breeds.

Ms. Filion Orman says this is an especially crucial time for ex-racehorses because of the weak economy. We’ve read stories about people losing their homes and leaving behind their cats and dogs, but the news has a slightly different angle for racehorses.

”The higher the price of fuel, the more things are affected,” Ms. Filion Orman says. “People are losing their farms, they can’t afford feed and hay. It’s a bad time for horses — it’s raining horses.”

In other words, horse owners are desperately looking to place the animals they can no longer afford. Rescue and adoption agencies are filled to capacity, and some of these organizations are also going out of business.

Interestingly, recent tragedies in the racing industry have brought the plight of the horses more into public awareness. In May, Eight Belles had just crossed the finish line at the Kentucky Derby (she came in second, behind Big Brown) and broke both of her front ankles. She was immediately euthanized. In 2006, Derby-winner Barbaro’s career came to an end during the Preakness, after his tragic injury. He lived another eight months, but then succumbed to his injuries.

”The racing industry is being scrutinized by the public because of the high-profile deaths at the big races,” Ms. Filon Orman says. “This is a crucial time for horse rescue and ReRun is using that concern of the public to get the stories out there.”

Happily, one area resident didn’t need tragic news to meet up with a retired racehorse. Kirsten Ohlson’s connection to Call Seven, a Thoroughbred rescued through the ReRun program, seemed to be a match made in heaven.

”One of the trainers in my barn in Princeton also has a barn in New Egypt and she told me there was this beautiful new Thoroughbred coming in, and I should take a look at him,” says Ms. Ohlson, a resident of Princeton Junction. “Almost as soon as I met him, he was nuzzling my face and I had no choice but to take him off their hands.”

Ms. Ohlson had never ridden a Thoroughbred before and knew they were multi-talented. Still she was taken aback — but delighted — to see Call Seven’s versatility.

”Racehorses can do any discipline they’re capable of,” she says. “(Call Seven) was retrained to be an English-style horse and he’s very, very athletic. He can do just about anything he wants and it looks to me like he likes jumping, which is perfect because I wanted to jump.

”I have nothing but praise for the ReRun program — I’ve had a wonderful experience with them,” Ms. Ohlson adds. “And I love (Call Seven) like he’s my youngest child.”

ReRun Farms will sponsor its Seventh Annual Thoroughbred Charity Horse Show at the Horse Park of New Jersey, 626 Route 524, Allentown, Sept. 27, 8 a.m. to sundown. Free admission. ReRun is looking for property donations in New Jersey. (732) 521-1370;