The first Saturday in May dawned bright, clear, and unusually cool in Louisville, Kentucky in 1986. The conditions were ideal to attract a massive crowd for the 112th running of the Kentucky Derby,
the American horse racing industry’s annual showcase of glamour, pageantry and high-stakes gambling. Those in the stands that day, and those who watched on TV, witnessed a thrilling race as a handsome, regally bred chestnut colt named Ferdinand burst from the field in the homestretch and claimed the victory as a 17-to-1 long shot. His jockey, 54-year-old Bill Shoemaker, instantly became the oldest jockey to win the legendary race, while Ferdinand’s trainer, Charlie Whittingham, won his first Derby at the age of 73.
The victory was validation for the racing world’s Old Guard: Shoemaker and Whittingham were already Hall of Famers, while billionaire owner and breeder Howard Keck, a Texas oil man, had finally won himself a Derby trophy. What’s more, Ferdinand had been foaled and broken under saddle at Kentucky’s famed Claiborne Farm, home of generations of blue-blooded racing champions, including Seabiscuit, subject of the current blockbuster film. All told, Ferdinand’s win made a compelling statement: that seniors could still compete in a youth-obsessed culture.
Ferdinand earned a then-record of $609,500 in winnings, but the colt wasn’t through. After finishing second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont Stakes in 1986, the thoroughbred found his winning stride again the following season and won Horse of the Year honors by nosing out 1987 Kentucky Derby winner Alysheba in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Two years later, however, Ferdinand was retired to stud, a job at which he proved to be a dud. Five years after that, in 1994, he was shipped to Japan for a second try at standing stud. Again, he couldn’t rise to the occasion. Earlier this summer, reports came out of Japan that Ferdinand was dead, apparently shipped to a Japanese slaughterhouse where he likely became pet food.
It was an ordinary end—thousands of lesser-known horses, after all, meet the same fate annually—for one extraordinary animal.
Fall from Grace
Howard Keck knew, like everyone else, that Ferdinand’s value as a stallion prospect rose significantly after his major victories. Such a valuable horse can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in stud fees and breeding shares. With those dollars signs in eyes, Keck expressed his wish to see Ferdinand retired to stud at Claiborne.
“I think I may have more patience than most people,” Keck told The Thoroughbred Record in 1986, referring to his long career as a breeder and his vindication with Ferdinand. “You have to in this business, because you have a lot of disappointments.”
In Keck’s own words, Ferdinand proved to be a “disappointment” as a stud when the horse was retired to Claiborne in 1989. The animal was simply unable to replicate his own brilliance in his progeny. In the ruthlessly high-stakes thoroughbred breeding business, that’s a crime punishable by deportation.
In 1994, Ferdinand was unceremoniously sold to Japanese breeding interests and shipped halfway around the globe to stand stud for a much-reduced sum in the Land of the Rising Sun. The American racing world and Ferdinand’s legions of fans quickly forgot about the once-beloved horse.
In July, however, The Blood Horse magazine learned that in 2002 the 19-year-old Ferdinand was “disposed of”—Japanese jargon for “killed in a slaughterhouse.” Because he’d met his useful end as a stallion, Ferdinand was, in all probability, ground up into pet food or as steaks destined for human consumption.
A Commonplace Horror
Ferdinand is not the only top thoroughbred to die in an overseas slaughterhouse. In 1997, reports surfaced that 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Exceller, who beat two Triple Crown winners in the race, was slaughtered in Sweden. Many other famous horses—including Kentucky Derby winners Alysheba (1987), Strike the Gold (1991), Sea Hero (1993) and War Emblem (2002), are standing stud in foreign countries, which has the more sensitive among racing enthusiasts worried that the animals will ultimately meet the same fate as Ferdinand.
Some in the racing industry want to see these famous equines grow old with greater dignity. They want to bring these thoroughbreds back to the United States and see them retired at farms or public venues, where fans might pay their respects, places such as Kentucky Horse Park, where racing champions John Henry and Cigar reside. Maybe some of these old Kentucky Derby winners could even get a ceremonial burial, like the ones afforded to Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Seattle Slew.
The economics may not favor these kind-hearted horse enthusiasts, however. Overseas breeders are paying big bucks for these famous horses to stand stud. If, by chance, more Kentucky Derby winners follow in the dark footsteps of Ferdinand, the animals would share a fate with thousands upon thousands of horses in the United States: ending their lives in a slaughterhouse.
Few horse owners—and even fewer non-horse owners—realize the extent to which horses are slaughtered for their flesh. The fact is, horse slaughter remains perfectly legal in this country, as well as in Canada and Mexico.
Two horse slaughter plants remain operational in Texas—both owned by European companies—and horses are habitually shipped to the Lone Star State from all parts of the country to be processed into a pricey delicacy enjoyed by Japanese and Europeans alike. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 42,000 horses were killed at the two Texas plants in 2002.
If not Texas, horses may also be easily transported across the border. Exports of horses for slaughter in Canada range from 23,000 to 30,000 per year. The “official” number shipped to Mexico is about 1,000—after all, it’s a lot easier and more cost-effective to ship horses to Texas than Mexico. However, it is estimated that thousands more are unofficially shipped south of the border.
Horses suffer both in transportation to slaughter and during the slaughtering process. Hauled in trailers designed for cattle—sometimes dangerous double deckers—the horses are overcrowded, often injured, and may go for days without food or water. The animals are difficult to render unconscious with a captive bolt gun, leading slaughterhouses to slit many horses’ throats while the animals are still conscious.
However elite his breeding and background, Ferdinand was not immune to the cruel fate that befalls so many of racing’s less fortunate or talented horses, particularly the campaigners who slog through the relentless year-round racing schedule in the United States Once they’ve outlived their “usefulness”—i.e., fail to earn their keep—these horses are judged expendable and sold at auction for small sums of money. The lucky ones will be purchased by someone looking for a pleasure horse, but many meet their end in slaughterhouses where they are killed and “processed” into human dinner fare.
The very fact that a famous horse could suffer the same horrific end speaks volumes about the “Sport of Kings.” Despite the industry’s wealth and obvious pride in crowning champions, legendary status clearly goes only so far in horse racing. A horse apparently must be “a winner” both on and off the track to guarantee a humane and dignified end.
What You Can Do
Help end the slaughter of horses in the United States. If you’re a horse owner, think carefully before breeding a mare and consider adopting your next horse from an equine rescue or humane organization. By reducing the overbreeding of sport and pleasure horses, older, injured or surplus animals will no longer be viewed as expendable.
Contact your federal representative and ask him or her to sponsor and support H.R. 857, the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. This law would prohibit the transportation of horses across state lines and international borders for the purpose of slaughter, as well as prohibit the sale or transport of horsemeat for human consumption. If passed, HR 857 will put an end, once and for all, to the slaughter of American horses both in the U.S. and in foreign countries.
The Honorable ________
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
Please also contact your two federal senators and ask them to sponsor and support legislation to ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption.
The Honorable _________
Washington, D.C. 20510
All federal legislators can be reached by calling the capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121.
By Margaret Baird is Assistant Director in The HSUS's Urban Wildlife Program 2003 The Humane Society of the United States