PARIS, Ky. — Rocking Josh was a strapping horse, a Kentucky-bred chestnut gelding with a white blaze on his forehead and a stride that went on forever. More than 17 hands high, he could take a whole carrot in one bite.
But more impressive than his looks was his work ethic. "Hardknocking," trainers called him. "An old campaigner." "Honest."
In 108 starts, Josh won 23 and finished in the money 60% of the time. He earned his owners nearly $600,000.
"Everybody made money with Rocking Josh," said Richard Frankel, a Long Island, N.Y., blood-stock agent who put Josh's photo on his business card after the horse fulfilled his 20-year dream of winning at Saratoga. "Every time he ran, he'd try his heart out. I mean he had a heart like a lion, this horse."
But that wasn't enough to guarantee Josh a cushy retirement. After an eight-year career, unable to stand at stud and with a right front ankle swollen to the size of a melon, he was turned out in April in a dirt paddock in Maryland.
When former trainers Scott and Kerry Posey found him on an unbearably hot July day, Josh's ribs were protruding and the hair on his back, once lovingly brushed, was falling out from sweat rot.
"I was in tears when I saw him," Kerry Posey says.
Even so, Josh was luckier than many thoroughbreds.
As many as 7,100 registered thoroughbreds went to slaughter last year in the United States, 10% of all horses slaughtered, according to the Humane Society of the United States. That is equivalent to 22% of the 1998 U.S. thoroughbred foal crop.
It is a side of the "sport of kings" that most fans do not see--where animals that fail to live up to their owners' rose-blanketed dreams end their days neglected or on "killer vans," worth no more than their price per pound.
"We're buying very expensive lottery tickets," says Dr. Alan Furst, a racehorse owner and president of the New Jersey-based Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. "Same as a losing ticket, you rip it up and throw it away. And racing is doing that."
Last year, only 20% of racehorses earned their keep in winnings, according to the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Assn.
Of 36,500 thoroughbred foals expected to be registered by The Jockey Club this year, about one-third will never race, the industry says. Of those that do, 67% of the fillies and mares, and only 7% of the males, will have post-racing breeding careers.
"I honestly believe that . . . if only the rich can afford to do it and do it right, then it should be the sport of kings," says Shon Wylie, president of ReRun Inc., a Kentucky-based group that rehabilitates and places retired thoroughbreds.
A $112-Billion- a-Year Industry
When the thoroughbred Exceller was inducted into the National Racing Museum's Hall of Fame this year, no one at the ceremony mentioned his sad fate, revealed by the Daily Racing Form: Exceller had wound up in a Swedish slaughterhouse.
The $112-billion-a-year thoroughbred industry has established funds to provide benefits for jockeys, breeders and even backstretch workers. But although some tracks, individuals and racing organizations contribute generously to horse retirement programs--including prison-based farms opening this month in Kentucky and soon in Florida--it is left to private organizations to rescue and place retired thoroughbreds.
In thoroughbred racing, there are two worlds. One of them belongs to horses like Secretariat.
Behind the main office at Claiborne Farm in Paris, two rows of moss-speckled Kentucky limestone grave markers face each other in a lush green plot enclosed by a stone fence. This is racing's Valhalla.
Names on the stones, some adorned with a long-stemmed red rose: Roundtable, Nijinsky II, Sir Galahad III, Mr. Prospector, Swale, Secretariat.
"A horse that has been good to us, we're going to remain good to him--even in death," says John Sosby, Claiborne's manager.
But for most thoroughbreds, like Josh, there is another world--one in which they may change hands as often as every 25 days. These are the second-tier racehorses of the claiming ranks.
In a claiming race, any horse entered can be bought on the spot for a predetermined price by any licensed trainer or owner. At the smaller tracks, and during the winter at the big tracks, as many as 80% of races run are claiming races.
Occasionally the two worlds collide, producing a Cinderella tale like that of Charismatic, the 1999 Kentucky Derby winner, who had been a two-time claimer; or a horror story, like Exceller's.
Changing Economics Create Harsh Realities
Many of the animals that don't make it on the track or in the breeding barns end up in one of the four remaining U.S. facilities that slaughter horses for human consumption abroad.