Derby winners don't always live happily ever after
August 25, 2003
A home for Kentucky Derby winners should be sunshine, bluegrass and pretty mares waiting to make babies who can fly. There should be rolling pastures, white board fences and shade trees galore. Those great athletes should be fed, groomed and sheltered into old age. They are treasures. They made dreams come true.
If you thought Derby winners already lived in such luxury, you're forgiven for not knowing the whole, sad truth. Even racing people are appalled by the news from Japan.
The Blood-Horse, a thoroughbred industry magazine in Kentucky, has reported that Ferdinand, the 1986 Derby winner and 1987 Horse of the Year, likely was taken to a Japanese slaughterhouse last year. There he would have been butchered for human consumption. That, and ground up for pet food.
Anyone who was at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May 1986 remembers Ferdinand. He was moving, with Bill Shoemaker up, in pink-and-blue silks, in the stretch, behind a wall of horses, the race lost -- until Shoemaker, more than once broken into pieces by falling horses, had a decision to make.
Go wide around three horses? Cautious.
Dive to a sliver of air on the rail? Dangerous.
Later, asked how long he had to decide, Shoemaker said, ;One-two-three-BOOM.
In such moments, men and horses define themselves. The old Shoemaker did what the young Shoemaker had done. He asked Ferdinand to move toward the danger. The horse did it. Suddenly, in front, a pink cap, Shoemaker's cap.
Ferdinand won the 112th Kentucky Derby by 2 1/2 lengths. At odds of 18-1, Ferdinand, a gorgeous chestnut with a white star between his eyes, gave Shoemaker his fourth Derby victory, at 54, and Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham his first, at 73.
But romance quickly yields to business in the thoroughbred industry. Because winners are more valuable at stud than racing, good ones often leave racing early -- though not always to profit.
In Secretariat's year, 1973, a colt named Top Knight, a champion the year before, ran out of the money in the Triple Crown races. Then, quickly retired, Top Knight refused all entreaties of eager mares. Kentucky journalist Mike Barry said, ;Not only is Top Knight slow, he's stupid.
Nor was Ferdinand a success at stud. From 1989 to 1994, he stood at one of Kentucky's classiest places, Claiborne Farm. In hundreds of breedings, he sired only five stakes winners. His owners sold him to a Japanese farm, where he did no better.
That farm's owner, Yoshikazu Watanabe, told The Blood-Horse he gave Ferdinand to a friend and that the friend then ;disposed of; the horse.
Among the mysteries: Why did no one in the United States know of Ferdinand's impending doom? Many owners who sell thoroughbreds overseas retain buy-back rights. A Japan racing official says Ferdinand's slaughter, if it happened, would be an aberration; he has given The Blood-Horse documentation showing that 22 of 24 American champions in Japan are alive.
In any case, reaction among U.S. horse people has been, in essence, ;If only I'd known about Ferdinand, I'd have brought him back myself.
As the author of Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand may be horse racing's greatest friend today. ;I met Ferdinand about 12 years ago,; she says. ;He was the sweetest stallion I've ever met. He tugged my hat away from me and started playing with it.
The idea of Ferdinand being slaughtered ;makes me sick,; Hillenbrand says. Had someone given me an hour and a telephone, I could have easily raised tens of thousands of dollars to get him back here.
In Midway, Ky., horseman Michael Blowen has started Old Friends, an organization dedicated to bringing home those champions unwanted overseas -- or those inhumanely mistreated, as some American horse people believe to be the case with 1989 Derby winner Sunday Silence.
While at stud in Japan, Sunday Silence was apparently allowed to die of a heart attack prompted by excruciating pain. The horse suffered laminitis, a disease in which the bones of the hoof can rip through the bottom of the hoof, forced out by explosive inflammation. The Japanese owner, apparently to squeeze another dollar from Sunday Silence, kept him working despite the terminal illness.
Though none is suspected of being in such peril, or headed for slaughter, five Derby winners live in Japan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. They are Alysheba, Strike the Gold, Sea Hero, Charismatic and War Emblem.
For them, Blowen would build a retirement farm. With the Ferdinand story as catalyst, Blowen says that in ;seven weeks of turbulent existence; Old Friends has raised $15,000 from ;grass-roots racing fans.Still, he says, ;We shouldn't be pointing fingers at anybody. We do a terrible job ourselves.
Maybe 60,000 horses a year are killed in two U.S. slaughterhouses for human consumption abroad; only a small portion of those are thoroughbreds, and those are the severely damaged horses. The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, introduced in Congress in 2002, would make such acts a crime.
So, if you care about honorable and humane treatment of horses, inform your congressional delegation. Or click on Blowen's website, www.oldfriendsequine.com. Or encourage racing people to build a retirement farm themselves.
Or do all of that, and more.
Dave Kindred is a contributing writer for Sporting News. Email him email@example.com.