Are retired racehorses starving in the care of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation?

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March 17, 2011; Source: New York Times | Like the Rashomon effect, the story of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation depends on who's telling the story. In this New York Times story, the TRF is depicted as a troubled organization, revealed to be slow or delinquent in paying for the care of more than 1,000 retired racehorses, leading to charges that some have starved and have been neglected.

TRF apparently sends horses to various farms and pays the owners to take care of the animals, but it seems to have been deficient in providing oversight. Only 47 of 63 horses assigned to it could be located, and many of those that were located were deemed to be starving. The Times reported that 34 horses assigned by TRF to a Kentucky farm were in "poor" or "emaciated" condition. Although founded in 1984 and the recipient of millions of dollars from breeders (such as Paul Mellon whose estate established a $5 million endowment for the foundation) and racing organizations such as the Jockey Club, TRF has been in financial straits for years, running a $1.2 million deficit in 2009 leading to lagging payments to the farms and charges of serious neglect of the horses.

In one case a vet who has been tracking the TRF horses found horses at one farm being fed toxic (to horses) cattle feed. The 4-H Farm wouldn't let the vet onto the property to inspect the horses until it received partial payment for what was owed them since 2005. The farm also required the foundation to pledge not to prosecute the farm for the condition of the horses.

Others associated with TRF have countered the Times report. The Atlantic reports one TRF board member, well known in the racing industry, saying that TRF was doing all it could to protect the horses and to deal with charges of neglect. On AOL News, an article suggests that there were problems, but not nearly of the magnitude portrayed in the Times report.

A TRF board member wrote an explanation of the situation, disputing the Times article as "false and reckless." He added, "I don't think there are any easy solutions." There are plenty of nonprofit management and donor oversight lessons in the TRF articles, but there is another issue – the racing industry's overall responsibility. The horseracing industry uses and often abuses racehorses, and when these stunningly beautiful animals have reached the end of their productive lives, they are left to charities such as the TRF or simply put out of sight and out of mind.

Industries have a responsibility to tend to their "negative externalities." The problems of TRF, either as depicted by the Times or admitted by the TRF board member, reflect a lack of attentiveness not just of the donors and the nonprofit, but the horseracing industry itself.—Rick Cohen