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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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Top-Down Direction Only Clear Solution to Scourge of Horse Slaughter

In part one of this series we discussed the problem of horse slaughter facing the Thoroughbred industry. In part two we examined the industry’s current efforts to retire, rehabilitate, re-train, re-home, and rescue Thoroughbreds. Today we look at solutions to end slaughter and the aftercare of the tens of thousands of horses following their days on the racetrack and in the breeding shed.

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.

Part Three:

My children grew up around horses. Even before she could read the barn numbers, my daughter knew the barns at Belmont Park by the ponies she could ride and the cats she could play with. Some, like legendary Greentree Stables, had both.

One of her favorite ponies, Peeper, was stabled at Angel Penna, Jr.’s barn. She not only loved to ride Peeper, she liked to feed him sugar cubes because he made bubbles with his lips after eating them.

One morning my daughter and I were riding Peeper while waiting for jockey Jacinto Vasquez to work a French filly named Targhese.

Targhese placed in a Group 3 in France in her career debut in 1982 and won on turf at Belmont after the abovementioned workout. She had three wins and five seconds in 17 starts over three years, but was retired in 1985 after failing to hit the board in three starts that year.

In her second career as a broodmare, she produced six winners from seven foals to race and had eight foals over nine seasons, including two black-type placers. Traced to Canada following her last breeding season (1995), no one knows where she went after arriving there. An email to the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society, admittedly a longshot, went unanswered.

Too many Thoroughbreds end up falling through a crack like Targhese had once her economic utility ceased. They just seem to disappear, which may as well be a euphemism for slaughter or, if they are lucky, euthanasia. She was lucky to make it to age 15. Most Thoroughbreds never get close to that age.

I now take my granddaughters to the barns. Maybe when they grow up there no longer will be any horse slaughter.

Rick Violette was assistant trainer to Penna, Jr. at that time and he has since become a top trainer in his own right. He was the long-time president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemens Association, now is Director Emeritus.

Under his leadership, NYTHA instituted many programs that help horses and horsemen, and have supported many existing benevolent programs: The TAKE THE LEAD Thoroughbred Retirement Program, started in 2013, has found rehabilitation and retraining placements for more than 325 Thoroughbreds retiring from NYRA tracks.

Last year, TAKE THE LEAD found homes for 98 retired racehorses and donated $137,300 to the accredited aftercare facilities that provided rehab and retraining.

Beginning in 2014, every owner competing at the New York Racing Association racetracks donates $5 per start to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), which accredits and funds the aftercare organizations that provide homes for the horses retiring from the racetrack.

The following is NYRA’s slaughter policy: Any owner or trainer stabled at a New York Racing Association, Inc. track found to have knowingly sold a horse for slaughter will have his or her stalls permanently revoked from all NYRA tracks.

NYRA requires its horsemen to conduct due diligence on those buying horses and encourages them to support rescue and adoption efforts and to find humane ways of dealing with horses unable to continue racing.

Horsemens organizations in many other states, as well as racetracks, sales companies and individuals, also contribute to aftercare on a national level, with the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance currently overseeing 64 accredited retirement organizations with 180 facilities.

In Part two we discussed the pop-up window that appears on self-wagering terminals when bettors cash their tickets. It affords the winning player an option to contribute to aftercare via the TAA. It is a great idea because everyone that makes money on horseracing, from hot dog sellers to breeders, should kick in.

The pop-up idea, originated by PETA, was developed for racetracks by The Stronach Group and AmTote. In the past, PETA vice president Kathy Guillermo contacted me. The best we could do was agree to disagree. However, we kept open avenues of communication because we thought that one day we might find common ground. That time has come.

In 2011, Guillermo sent a letter to James Gagliano, president and COO of The Jockey Club. The letter detailed a plan to raise money through a fee system to provide funds to care for all retired Thoroughbreds.

The Thoroughbred 360 Lifecycle Fund could provide the industry with tens of millions of dollars each year with mandatory $360 fees in a top-down solution to retirement.

Fees paid by breeders, owners, sales companies, and more for each transaction (registrations for stallions, mares, foals, owners, licensees, sales, claims, etc…) can establish a self-sustaining fund to provide aftercare for all thoroughbreds.

The first year of the plan should raise $30 million with $20 million expected each successive year. In 20-25 years, the plan would reach the point at which it will become self-sustainable and the contributions could be greatly reduced or eliminated.

Instead, TJC instituted $35 and $25 fees, tantamount to a step above lip service. Now is the time to step up the game tenfold or greater. If the PETA plan was adopted in full when originally proposed, the industry would be almost halfway to reaching that goal.

Meanwhile, the TAA currently gets just over $3 million each year; a figure woefully insufficient to provide anything close to comprehensive aftercare. The proposed $360 fee may have been sufficient if the program started in 2012.

Currently, however, it’s probably three times below the amount needed if the plan were instituted now. The longer the industry continues to wait, the higher the cost.

In Washington D.C., the legislature introduced two bills, HR 113 in the House of Representatives and S1706 in the Senate. These are the respective bicameral versions of the SAFE Act.

SAFE is an acronym for Safeguard American Food Exports, and the bills would prevent the horse slaughter industry from establishing operations in the U.S. and prohibit the export of American horses for slaughter abroad.

If the SAFE act becomes law, the Thoroughbred industry would immediately have to deal with the problem of slaughter and it is entirely unprepared to do so; a public relations nightmare of epic proportions. Please do not allow horseracing to go the way of the dogs.

Greyhound racing in the US has severely contracted since its heyday in the ‘80’s, mostly due to the bad press as it relates to animal cruelty and is closer to extinction that in has ever been.

In 1975, the National Enquirer published an article, “Greyhound Racing – Where Brutality and Greed Finish Ahead of Decency,” which began a media assault on the Greyhound industry.

In 1978, the negative publicity continued with ABC’s 20/20 magazine program, followed by Inside Edition, National Geographic Explorer, and Fox News. It was later joined by national magazines including Life, Reader’s Digest and Ladies’ Home Journal.

Another severe blow to Greyhound racing occurred in 2002 when a New York Times report disclosed that a security guard working at Florida tracks received thousands of unwanted dogs over the years, shot them in the head and buried them on his Alabama farm for a charge of $10 each.

Thoroughbred racing is permitted in 38 states and, ironically, dog racing is banned in 39. Over the past 30 years, 52 greyhound tracks have been shuttered and now only 13 remain in seven states, mostly in Florida. Two dog tracks in Idaho would close if it were not compelled to race by casino licensing agreements.

The TAA does a good job supporting many facilities throughout the US but a large Thoroughbred retirement farm in a centralized location is desperately needed: There is no way the current system can sustain tens of thousands of retired racehorses. Using a self-sustaining fund to purchase a multi-thousand acre property, combined with economies of scale, would greatly reduce retirement costs.

This mega-farm not only would be dedicated to the re-training and retirement of Thoroughbreds, it could house the retirement of older people in the game; retired grooms, exercise riders, trainers, veterinarians, etc. They could help continue to perform their life’s work and train young apprentices in their respective fields. The farm would provide an educational environment to train the unique skillsets required for animal care.

This large facility would provide tracts of land to grow hay, oats, carrots and more for the horses and also feed the people living there. The movers and shakers within the Thoroughbred industry and the industry’s existing synergies with the corporate world could add to the cost savings of such a partnership.

These above is a conglomerate of ideas HRI gleaned from the many calls, emails and messages placed to people within and without the Thoroughbred industry. We cannot take all the credit, but I would like to be among the first to volunteer my services in some capacity.

If rescue people like Dina Alborano and Maggi Moss with highly opposing views on methodology can set aside differences to work together, so can Thoroughbred racing & People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

Written by Mark Berner

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