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 V.21 No.17 | April 26 - May 2, 2012 

News Feature

Spurring Change

The aftermath of the NY Times horse-racing exposé

A horse named Stretch just after he arrived at Four Corners Equine Rescue
Courtesy of Debbie Coburn
A horse named Stretch just after he arrived at Four Corners Equine Rescue
The thing that hooked Debbie Coburn into nonprofit horse care: a 50,000-horse-long pee line. That’s the odd name for a controversial practice. Coburn explains that pregnant mares excrete a hormone in their urine that can be readily absorbed by humans. “There are pharmaceutical companies who buy the urine from farmers who collect it,” she says. The companies extract the hormone from PMU (pregnant mare urine) and put it in hormone replacement therapy drugs.

“At the time I got involved, there were about 50,000 mares standing on the pee line,” she says. “They’d spend their winter pregnant and tied in a stall in a barn,” only to be let out in the spring long enough to be re-impregnated. In the early 2000s, when Coburn became involved, “there were about 50,000 mares a year being born that needed a good home.”

That’s how Coburn started taking in horse refugees, leading her to start the nonprofit Four Corners Equine Rescue. The scope of the organization gradually expanded, and Coburn and her group of volunteers care for 52 horses on 5 acres. Coburn et al take in horses from any sort of "perilous situation" who've been abused, put up for slaughter or abandoned. Four Corners also makes a home for retired racehorses, and it’s because of this work that the organization has experienced a sudden surge in growth.

The late-March New York Times article on the ills of horse racing, “Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys,” trains its lens on New Mexico. The piece found staggering rates of illegal drugging in horses. Trainers have been caught 3,800 times across the country since 2009, according to the article. That only represents a fraction of the problem since not all of the animals are tested. The Times also shines a light on lax penalties for violations. These issues result in large death and injury tolls for jockeys and steeds alike, with some of the highest rates coming from New Mexico.

Stretch is nearing the end of his rehabilitation. He will likely be put up for adoption soon.
Courtesy of Debbie Coburn
Stretch is nearing the end of his rehabilitation. He will likely be put up for adoption soon.
TThe investigative report inspired dialogue among New Mexico politicians, agencies and advocates. Sen. Tom Udall asked for national standards for racehorse medication. Gov. Susana Martinez requested reports from the state’s Racing Commission on the heftiest problems and potential solutions.

In the aftermath of the exposé, Coburn wants to help, taking in more horses that have been injured while racing. After the article came out, she met with one of the state’s racing commissioners to come up with a plan. “We’re drawing up a proposal to try to help them,” she says. Coburn is also asking owners at her local racetrack, SunRay Park in Farmington, N.M., to shelter their injured animals.

Instead of merely picking up the pieces, though, Coburn would like to see an overall shift in attitudes and practices. “I would really like to see the racing industry clean up,” she says. Her biggest concern is the practice of giving painkillers to horses so they can run even though they're injured. "How can you call yourself a horseman and do that?” she asks.

Sara before rehab efforts
Courtesy of Debbie Coburn
Sara before rehab efforts
TVince Mares is the Racing Commission’s new executive director. He's served as interim director since November and was appointed officially in February. He refers, somewhat jokingly, to the Times article as “baptism by fire.” Mares also wants to see change in the racing business. But he points out the largest hurdle to effecting that change: money.

In New Mexico, the Racing Commission is the regulatory authority that oversees horse racing, and the agency is responsible for drug-testing horses that compete. But the commission can’t afford to check them all, Mares says, and so it only evaluates the winner of each race.

A urine test is $120 per horse, with blood tests up to $140, says Mares. With up to 12 races per card, and meets running somewhere in the state nearly every day, that cost adds up. “We’re looking at $375,000 to $400,000 for all of them,” he says. “It takes a large percentage out of our total budget.” Mares’ solution is to ask for more funding from the state Legislature so the agency could test up to three horses for each race. As it remains, he says, “we’re doing the best that we can.”

The Times piece also calls out the state’s Racing Commission for doling out mild penalties. As an example, it cited the free pass trainers receive for overmedicating horses with a painkiller called flunixin for their first violation, with only a $200 fine for their second. In Indiana, the article continues, after the first drug use violation, winnings are forfeited.

Here’s Sara today. She is available for adoption at Four Corners Equine Rescue.
Courtesy of Debbie Coburn
Here’s Sara today. She is available for adoption at Four Corners Equine Rescue.
T“Like street drugs, the classifications we have in the racing commission are different levels,” Mares explains. Doping a horse with cocaine incites a greater consequence than doping one with an excessive amount of therapeutic drugs. “But like any drug, it can be abused,” he says, adding that the biggest problem with penalties is there has to be consistency in their enforcement. “This commission has taken a very aggressive approach,” he says, referencing its decision to become the first state to ban horses from racing on clenbuterol, a respiratory aid that builds muscle.

Mares says he's annoyed by how the Times coverage portrays trainers. “There are some really good trainers and really good owners,” he says, “and unfortunately, they’re getting tagged with those who are willing to do anything to win.”

Beyond testing and penalties, Coburn would like to see other practices change. She says most racehorses are started too young, before their bones are fully developed. “In America, it’s a commonly accepted practice to start riding a horse at 2,” she says, “but I believe they shouldn’t be started until 3.”

TShe’d also like to see the industry take more responsibility for what happens to the animals when they’re injured or retired. Most racehorses end up going to slaughter, she says, “and it will take everybody’s help to change that.” She hopes to educate the public on the practice. “Everybody roots for the winner,” she says. “It’s the loser that needs your help.”

Coburn says the best way to provoke change is for people to unite around the cause. Last month, Four Corners helped establish the New Mexico Equine Rescue Alliance, a group comprised of nine similar organizations. “We can be more effective banding together,” she says.

One of the best things that’s come out of the scrutiny, she says, is people’s desire to make a difference. “If you don’t like what’s happening, please help us change it,” she says. “We need all the help we can get.”

 
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