Turning for Home reflects attitude changes in aftercare

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Nov. 29, 2016

A pioneer program in racetrack aftercare that serves as a template for the industry has shown what can be accomplished by first taking care of its own.

Turning for Home was launched by the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association in the spring of 2008 and, by the spring of 2016, had accepted more than 2,000 horses with a connection to Parx Racing, which is open for training year-round and races most of the year. In 2015 the program took in 298 Thoroughbreds; it’s poised to exceed 300 for 2016.

Racehorse aftercare awareness has grown quite a bit over the past eight years, and Turning for Home has been part of the educational process. And a change in attitude has led to a change in culture.

Rather than run a non-competitive horses a few more times, more trainers and owners are opting for the retirement path, said Danielle Montgomery, who administers Turning for Home for the PTHA.

“People who have been around for a while remember when there was no retirement (program) and no regulation of it,” Montgomery said. “There was no follow-up like there is today. Owners are giving us more horses because we’ve proven we do a good job and because people love seeing horses go on to second careers. It’s important to have a horse security program that is working for them.

“The most important part is that you need to have accountability. People are trusting us with their horses and their money. If we’re not on top of these horses and making decisions for them, it’s not fair to the horses or their owners. Our program tries to follow all the horses and keep checking up with them.”

To that end, any adopter must sign a form that grants Turning for Home right of first refusal should the adopter desire to transfer ownership. Adopters also must agree to never place a horse in an equine or livestock auction or sell a horse for slaughter.

Turning for Home publishes a comprehensive annual report (view report for 2015) that details revenue and expenses; a breakdown of the causes for the retirement of racehorses; an outreach and marketing overview; and a listing of “partner farms” used for retraining or rehabilitation. By design, the program doesn’t own or operate farms.

Relationships with quality partner farms, which number more than 20 in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, South Carolina, and North Carolina, are integral to Turning for Home, Montgomery said. Rather than a pay a monthly boarding fee, the program provides a one-time stipend as well as veterinary support to help facilitate prompt adoptions.

“We are providing a service,” Montgomery said. We’re backing them up and giving them money for rehab. It’s a one-time stipend that takes care of the costs for four to six months. We provide the horse, a veterinary evaluation, and shipping. All we ask in return is for the farms to keep us up to date on the progress.

“I’ve found that when the farms stay small in the number of horses they keep they are more attentive to detail and there’s a likelihood that horses will go on to the next farm. Smaller farms seem to work better like they do in the racing industry.”

Turning for Home initially relied on a voluntary $10 per start fee from owners that eventually became mandatory, though some owners also privately make contributions. The PTHA and Parx Racing each have contributed $50,000 a year, with additional funds from the jockey colony, breeders, and the public. From 2011-15 a private benefactor gave the program $60,000 a year.

Plans to double most contributions next year weren’t opposed–a sign the program is well-received and successful.

“The horsemen are totally supportive of Turning for Home because they understand the benefits the program provides for them,” PTHA Executive Director Mike Ballezzi said. “We’ve given folks a remedy to an intolerant situation. We’re there for them. We protect them. You can’t lose sight of the fact that we’re protecting horses. We have to save our athletes. Period. End of story.”

The PTHA and Turning for Home have found that concentrating on horses that meet the program’s criteria at Parx is the most effective way to deal with racehorse aftercare. To qualify, a horse must have been continuously stabled at Parx for at least 90 days prior to application to Turning for Home or must have raced at Parx in the previous 30 days for a trainer based at Parx for at least six months of the year.

Horses stabled at state-approved training centers may be eligible for Turning for Home if they raced at Parx within the previous 30 days of application and have had at least 50% of their races at Parx over the previous 365 days.

Montgomery said the criteria is necessary “to stay on course” and ensure the needs of horses are met. Turning for Home, however, also works with other programs in the region, she said.

“With any good program, you have to have your boundaries, a mission statement, and make sure you have enough finances to cover the number of horses that come through the program,” Montgomery said. “The tracks in our area work together really well. We all work together on communications, and other non-track programs also pick up horses. There are less and less Thoroughbreds (going to) slaughter. We have a safety net now.”

As of early November, Turning for Home had about 20 horses on its waiting list, and Montgomery noted not one of them had been retired because of a breakdown injury. Their connections had recognized the horses were no longer competitive.

“It’s huge,” Montgomery said of the growth in awareness. “They’ll give a horse to Turning for Home because they know the horse will have a chance.”

(THA photo)