Day At The Track

Making your horse's retirement officially permanent

05:43 AM 07 Jan 2014 NZDT
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How resilient is the Standardbred racehorse?

Consider that the horse with the most wins in North America for 2013 was Anvil Raider N. The seasoned campaigner racked up 23 wins for the year; and he did it at the remarkable age of 14. Another 14 year old, Forest Vic A, regularly graced the Saturday night card at Yonkers during 2013, and took his career mark of 1:50.3 on December 28 at The Meadowlands. These and other crusaders typify the tremendous durability of the breed.

While a United States Trotting Association (USTA) rule forced Anvil RaiderForest Vic and all other horses attaining the age of 15 on January 1 to retire from all but matinee, county fair and amateur races, that mandate is presently the subject of both popular debate and a proposed rule change seeking its elimination. The argument is that if a horse is healthy and spirited, why should age matter?

Understanding why the Thoroughbreds don’t have a mandatory retirement rule is easy. All one need do is peruse the races on any given card that aren’t restricted to 2 or 3-year-olds. Horses older than 6 are rare; horses racing at 8 and over are true anomalies.

There are no equals to 9-year-old all-time pacing standout Foiled Again in the Thoroughbred stakes ranks. Many of our horses are racing years after equivalent-aged Thoroughbreds are put out to pasture. On the whole, our horses race much longer, more frequently and yet sustain almost none of the nasty breakdown incidents experienced with other racing breeds.

Still, the majority of horses do not remain sufficiently competitive to race into mandatory retirement. Owners, in consultation with their trainers and veterinarians, are often faced with the reality that no amount of layup time will bring a certain steed around. Similarly, illness or infirmity may signal that it’s time to pension a stallion or leave a mare permanently barren. The decision is patently selfless.

Literally no longer able to earn its keep, much less produce profit, the horse’s connections place it either into a second career (show, riding academy, etc.), or into the loving arms an equine-crazed child. Neither circumstance will garner the releasing owner much more than the peace of mind that he or she has done right by the animal.

Then again, the best of intentions can be undermined. Everyone in our industry has heard multiple variations on the same basic narrative. A hard knocking racer has done enough. His legs and hooves are showing wear; he’s no longer on the bit. He’s been good to his owners and they, in turn, want to be good to him. They transfer his papers to someone who has agreed to treat the horse with the senior status the owners have dictated: Slow trail rides, long pasture grazing and all of the expectations of a stress-free environment.

Three weeks later the horse is in to go in a cheap claiming race.

How did this happen? Simply, when I transfer a Standardbred with papers, I am granting to its new owners the right to race or breed their new acquisition. Placing prohibitions on future use and other restrictions in a bill of sale might give the transferring owners a legal claim, but having that claim transformed into a court order preventing the new owner from racing or breeding the horse would take significant time and money. Simply, if the registration papers are in the hands of a licensed owner, that owner is going to be allowed to drop the horse into the entry box, like it or not.

Of course, the owners could sell the horse without transferring the registration certificate, whether held physically or electronically, to the new owner. Then again, if the owners retain the papers, they retain ownership insofar as the U.S.T.A. database is concerned. In the legal realm, they could be brought into an array of potential scenarios.

What if the horse injures someone? What if it’s found abandoned?  A quick, free check of the PaTHWaY Horse Name/Tattoo Search on the website against the horse’s freeze brand can be done by anyone, including an attorney or governmental agency. Their current status on the breed registry website ensures that the “old” owners will be brought into any civil, administrative or even criminal proceeding involving the horse.

The argument that they “legally” transferred ownership of the horse via a bill of sale, despite its ownership status on the breed registry, while viable, is certainly not going to be entertained until after they receive a summons, summary suspension or handcuffs.

Recognizing the real and potential problems faced by owners in this regard, the U.S.T.A. promulgated a rule change in 2010 (amended in 2013) that permits selling owners to have their intentions carried out without incurring liability. The “Pleasure Registration” rule states:

§ 26.02 Standardbred.—Horses may be registered as Standardbred with any of the following qualifications:

(h) The status of a previously registered Standardbred may be changed to Pleasure Horse upon application by the owner and surrender of the Registration Certificate to the USTA. A registration will be issued stating that future offspring of such horse will not be registered by the USTA. Any electronic eligibility previously issued for such horse shall be terminated, and no new electronic eligibility shall be issued. Any transferee must be a member of the USTA.

While somewhat self-explanatory, there are aspects of Pleasure Registration Rule that should be emphasized:

1)     Pleasure Registration conversion is absolutely free. It must be done while still in the care, custody and control of the converting owners and cannot be done once the horse has left their care.  All the owners need to do is surrender their USTA Registration Certificate and submit a Pleasure Horse Conversion Application. This can be done at any time, not just when the owners are contemplating a sale. A copy of the conversion application may be found here:

2)     The conversion to the Pleasure Horse Registry is permanent and irrevocable. A future owner will not be able to reconvert the horse to the active registry under any circumstances.

3)     If desired, or if evidence of the horse’s converted status is required for participation in a non-racing activity, a certificate evidencing pleasure registration may be obtained.

4)     Knowledge of the horse’s converted status is public. A Pleasure Registration logo appears opposite each horse in the registry on the PaTHWaY’s system.

Obviously, Pleasure Registration will not prevent a horse from being otherwise abused or neglected by those with current care, custody and control of the animal.  Consider, however, that someone taking a horse with significant restrictions is not only aware, but also accepting of the limits on the horse’s future commercial value. While not a failsafe, Pleasure Registry status, coupled with employment of some common sense due diligence as to the reputation of the prospective purchasers, goes a long way towards shielding the horse from a terrible ending. 

Pleasure Registration is but one of the several ways our association fosters lifetime protection for the life, health and safety of the Standardbred. The Full Circle program allows the one-time owner, trainer, driver, breeder, caretaker or anyone with a connection to a trotter or pacer to establish a lifetime point of contact should a subsequent custodian need help or wish to relinquish ownership of the horse. While it imposes no obligation on present or former owners, it is a vehicle by which a horse may be transferred or in some way assisted by a former connection.

The Save Our Standardbreds (S.O.S.) program operates as a financial assistance program for I.R.C. 501(c)(3) programs caring for horses that have been abandoned or ordered removed from an owner due to mistreatment.

In the same vein, the U.S.T.A. has recently constituted a medication advisory committee in order to develop comprehensive, breed-specific proposals on the use of therapeutic medications and recommended penalties for violations. While equines, Standardbreds are from a select, closed gene pool that race at different gaits, speeds and over different surfaces than other racing breeds, and have markedly different training regimens as well. Balancing what’s best to keep the racing Standardbred healthy and competitive against practices that might needlessly improve performance is a mission that can’t be accomplished without consideration of the unique nature of our horses and industry.

Time and again, the U.S.T.A., an organization with no government-sanction regulatory enforcement apparatus and comparatively limited recourses, has stepped up to the task of safeguarding the individual members of the breed both during and after their productive years are over. All that is needed to accomplish the goal is the support and participation of association members.

Chris E. Wittstruck is an attorney, a director of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York and a charter member of the Albany Law School Racing and Gaming Law Network.

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