Just up the road from an affluent community in Chino Hills, under a blazing sun, a man in a baseball cap loads horses for transport to slaughter.
Some of the animals move slowly, the result of old age or injuries, but others are obviously well-conditioned, thoroughbreds fresh off the track.
The ranch hand continues loading until 46 horses fit in the double-decker truck designed to transport cattle and pigs, animals smaller than horses. The horses will travel in these close quarters as far as Texas, to one of the 10 USDA-inspected equine slaughterhouses. Eventually, they will be sold for human consumption in Europe and Japan.
Many in the racing industry are unaware of the market for horse flesh, and of the ones who know, many assume the slaughter-bound horses are not their horses, that somehow the ones that go are lesser in class. But neither an impressive pedigree nor a winning race record provides an exemption.
Proud Duke, a bay son of Splendid Courage, earned $143,350 racing four years in Southern California. In the end, he boarded a cattle truck in Chino Hills and was slaughtered in Ft. Worth. Wine Girl, by Debonair Roger, earned $104,485 at the races, delivered a couple of foals and was sent to the holding pens to await shipment.
Broodmares carrying expensive foals are likewise non-exempt. In the last year, mares in foal to Habitony, who sired Breeders' Cup Classic contender Best Pal, and Olympic Native, who stands for $3,500, were found at the holding pens.
The scene occurs with startling familiarity. The horses crowd onto the truck. Some begin pawing the metal floor and biting each other. Others stare out from between the slats. Mares, stallions and geldings all file in together, standing shoulder to hip and nose to haunches for the 18-hour journey. Before they even begin the trip, their coats are washy with sweat and one appears to be bleeding from the mouth.
The ranch hand says a few words to the driver, and the truck leaves. Then it's back to the pens to rearrange the horses still waiting. The 46 on the truck will travel without food, water or a break to the Beltex Corporation's meat-packing plant in Ft. Worth. There they will each receive a bullet in the head as required by the Humane Slaughter Act.
The man loading the truck works for Leonard Grenier, owner of about 20 acres in Chino Hills that serve as a last stop for many horses. He could just as easily work for Slim Hart of Hart's Livestock in Corona.
Both Grenier and Hart, who head the only two operations in Southern California that provide horses to slaughterhouses, buy the animals from a variety of sellers. They get back yard horses at the weekly local auctions and thoroughbreds at the sales that cater to the racing community. Many times they don't have to venture out. People from the tracks, local farms and lay-up facilities, where horses are sent to recuperate, sometimes bring the animals to the two ranchers.
The former racehorses Hart and Grenier buy are often thoroughbreds who were not expected to win or runners who were injured beyond recovery. And because the meat buyers can only use live animals, there is incentive to keep horses alive until they go to the slaughterhouse. Injured animals that might otherwise be given a lethal injection at the track--and sent for autopsy as required by California law--are kept alive and sent to Grenier's or Hart's ranch.
The animals who come from the farms can be injured runners, barren mares, crooked babies or horses whose owners didn't pay the board bill. For Grenier and Hart, they are simply horses selling at a lower price than the per-pound prices the slaughterhouses will pay.
Grenier, a lifelong horseman and a racehorse owner, evaluates the animals on his lot to determine if they can be sold as saddle horses or anything more profitable than slaughterhouse horses.
Like backstretch workers at the track, Grenier is up early and spends long hours seven days a week with his horses. He said he loves the four-legged creatures.
"You can't do this if you don't," he said.
Grenier is constantly evaluating, buying, selling, breeding, talking about and caring for horses.
But mostly, it's buying and selling. He still remembers why he began shipping horses to slaughter in the early 1970s.
"I remember the day a man told me he'd pay 20 cents a pound. It was like someone telling you they were going to hand you $100,000 tomorrow," he said.
He's a horse trader and loves the action. At a recent two-day horse sale, Grenier stood near the bid spotter for the length of the auction each day. From his perch on the railing, he watched 425 horses enter the ring. He bid on many and finally bought 12.
His competitor, Donna Hart, bought eight. Slim Hart, Donna's husband, did not return repeated calls for comment on this story.
"It's a last resort when they're shipped for canners," Grenier said. "A lot of them don't ride."