Mark Berner

Mark Berner first worked with horses on a small farm in upstate New York in 1973, where he mucked stalls and cared for racehorses with infirmities that were turned out there until ready to resume training.

He joined American Teletimer as a clocker in 1976 and operated their electronic timing equipment at many east coast racetracks until 1978, when he was permanently stationed at NYRA's three tracks, Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park & Saratoga Race Course.

Berner did freelance handicapping for the New York Daily News in 1982 & 1983 before joining Newsday in 1984 as a handicapper and later a sports reporter. Berner teamed up with Pricci to win the United Press International's 1985 UPI New York Newspaper Awards for Best Sports Story. In addition, Berner wrote and handicapped for several trade publications including, Daily Racing Form, Sports Eye, Racing Action, The Thoroughbred Times, Horse Player Magazine and New York Sportsnet.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2018


Race Horses: Retirement, Rehabilitation, Retraining, Rehoming and Rescue


In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the business aspects of horse slaughter. This week we will look at what the Thoroughbred industry, individuals within and without the game, are doing to prevent this scourge via traditional “4R” methodology: Retirement, Rehabilitation, Re-training and Re-homing. Today we will examine a fifth; Rescue. As you will see, that may be more easily said than done.

Barbaro was the undefeated winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby, posting the largest winning margin in 60 years. All the talk was all about his chances to win the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Tragically, however, Barbaro broke down soon after the start in the Preakness. His Hall of Fame jockey, Edgar Prado, was cast in the role of first responder.

PART 3 of Mark's series on Horse Slaughter will appear April 17

Prado immediately dismounted and leaned his shoulder into Barbaro to assist in his support until help arrived. Dr. Dean Richardson, chief of surgery and the Charles W. Raker Professor of Equine Surgery at Pennsylvania University’s Widener Hospital at New Bolton Center, operated the following day at the Kennett Square facility.

Richardson used plates and screws to fuse together 20 pieces of what originally were a healthy cannon bone, sesamoid bone, and long pastern of the right hind leg. "The surgery was a masterpiece from an orthopedic point of view," said Patty Hogan, VMD, veterinary orthopedic surgeon at New Jersey Equine Clinic and a former student of Richardson.

Barbaro showed slow improvement but also experienced many complications in the following months. Eventually unable to support weight on any of his legs, he was euthanized in January of 2007.

In addition to assisting with Barbaro’s recovery process, Hogan’s work helped save Smarty Jones, winner of the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. In 2003, Smarty Jones smashed his head on a metal starting gate in a training accident, fracturing his skull and eye socket.

Hogan once again engaged in saving a horse last year, a Standardbred named Killean Cut Kid, a 12-year-old pacer that was rescued from a kill pen in Bastrop, Louisiana last August. How the horse got to the point, however, was far less heartwarming.

The week before rescue, owner/trainer Jason Moore and driver Mandy Jones posted a touching story on Facebook, stating how distraught they were about having to euthanize him. But the cover story was a lie. They had made arrangements to ship him to a slaughterhouse but the plan failed. He could not be shipped into Mexico due to open wounds. The horse ended up in an open sale instead.

Dina Alborano, Steve Haskin’s co-host on “Switching Leads,” an online talk show, stepped up when she stepped in to rescue the pacer. Alborano used the Internet, social media and crowd-funding methods to raise the money needed to bail out the old gelding.

Upon notification, the United States Trotting Association investigated but decided it could not take action because the horse had changed hands several times. There was no way of telling how the horse was injured.

The USTA, much like The Jockey Club, is a non-profit record-keeping organization of some influence but has no authority beyond granting or rescinding membership in its organization. The USTA informed local law enforcement in Louisiana but could not act unilaterally.

While Alborano has amplified the conversation on the Social networks, she has drawn the ire of several individuals rooted in traditional retirement programs because the money she spends to save one horse from a kill pen costs the same as saving two or three with more traditional methods.

Alborano knows the price is higher than it should be but doesn’t think she must adhere to a monetary ceiling when it comes to saving horses lives. To her credit, she has saved more than 150 horses, both Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds.

People inside the industry have added to the funds collected via Alborano’s social-media appeals. Some who have contributed are owners Amad Zayat, Rich Papeise, Michael Cannon and Mike Schera, and trainer Graham Motion, who places neon green stickers on the racing papers of his horses that read:

“HERINGSWELL STABLES LTD. If this horse ever needs a home, call 410.398.0090. This horse was not bred for slaughter.”


Some jockeys have also contributed to Alborano’s rescues; Mike Smith; Gary and Mrs. Stevens; retired jockeys and now racing media Zoe Cadman and Richard Migliore; Gulfstream Park’s TV host Jason Blewitt and the Stronach Group’s Frank Stronach via his Xpressbet franchise.

People tethered to horse racing are also involved as donators: Bettor and contest player Paul Matteis, HRI commenter Jon Utzman, and hockey player Eric Johnson, to name a few. Alborano was also contacted Mariel Hemingway and Oprah Winfree about rehoming horses on Hemingway’s farm in Idaho.

Traditionally funded organizations do a creditable job, too. The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance is a non-profit organization that accredits, inspects and awards grants to approved aftercare organizations.

The TAA is funded by its original partners, The Jockey Club, Breeders’ Cup Ltd. and the Keeneland Association, as well as supported by donations from owners, trainers, breeders and racetracks. Currently, 64 aftercare organizations support approximately 170 facilities across North America. All have been granted accreditation by the TAA.

Most racetracks have anti-slaughter policies, stating that anyone involved in horse slaughter will be sanctioned, only that doesn’t happen consistently. A significant number of the horses that end up in Bastrop, and at the Thompson Horse Lot & Co. in Pitkin, Louisiana, are often rescued by Alborano.

Too many horses that last raced at Delta Downs in Vinton, LA require rescue with alarming frequency. Some of those rescued raced so recently that they are still equipped with racing plates.

Representatives of Delta Downs and parent company Boyd Gaming have not returned phone calls or answered emails but there is a posted notice on its website:

“Delta Downs has an anti-slaughter policy in place. If an owner or trainer is found to have knowingly sold a horse to slaughter, we will permanently revoke their stall privileges. However, Delta Downs does not have the authority to revoke licenses.

“Further, we do not have the legal right to bar licensed owners and trainers from racing at our track. We are vehemently opposed to this behavior, and we will work with all licensing and other authorities to do what we can to deter it.”

Delta Downs claim seems specious. Private property rights laws in Louisiana allow them to deny entries and admission to the grounds, as do laws in many other states where other tracks have already done so.

Regrettably, Louisiana is not alone. There are many ugly places like the one in Bastrop, in places such as Shippensburg, PA; Presidio, TX; Butler, KY; Fairhaven, MI; Shelby, MT; Los Lunas, NM; Shipshewana, IN and Sugarcreek, OH.

Two brothers in Texas, Raul and Albert Benavides, have so many horses destined for Mexico slaughterhouses that they bought the Chula Vista Training Center in Eagle Pass, TX just to house them.

Ultimately, there needs to be a top-down solution to retirement. As it is now, the last owners at the lower end of the racing game are left holding the life of a horse in their hands. The people at the end of the line are the least capable to care for a horse for a decade or two after its retirement.

To its credit, the New York Racing Association announced recently that bettors will have a chance to contribute this Saturday, Wood Memorial day, to the TAA via a pop-up window on betting machines at Aqueduct and the Belmont Park Café, its simulcast facility. NYRA UPDATE: This option will be available starting on Wood Day and every day thereafter at NYRA tracks

Laurel Park was the first to offer this method of contribution. The idea came from Philip Shine, who works for a most unlikely ally, PETA. The Stronach Group and AmTote developed the technology and any racetrack that employs AmTote can offer it to its customers.

Clearly, industry people have not given up the battle and there is hope for the future. Next week HRI will present solutions to care for horses by establishing a self-sustaining fund to provide perpetual care for all Thoroughbreds bred in this country. It will include the expansion of a 2011 idea posited by its unlikely bedfellow, PETA. Stay tuned.

Written by Mark Berner

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