- NEW HOLLAND, Pa. (KRT) -
Inside, dozens of horses line the stalls with just a shade of wiggle room.
Fanciful names only get a thoroughbred so far in horse racing. By the time
a horse gets here - the weekly New Holland Sales Stable horse auction -
each is reduced to a number.
- The tag on one hip reads No. 154. No one knows that the
gelding once was known as Five Star General. Bred six years ago by a former
Kentucky governor, Five Star General last raced in July 2003 and earned
$26,000 in his career.
- They'll never learn that here.
- "$125! $125!" says the auctioneer in the small
wooden booth, rolling many words into one. "Can I get one-and-a-quarter?
One-and-a-quarter, one-a-quarter, one-a-quarter?"
- Five Star General will be sold on this day and shoved
into a pen with two dozen other horses. Then he'll be loaded into a trailer
and shipped 1,500 miles to a small plant just outside Fort Worth, Texas.
- He will be slaughtered there, racing dreams packaged
and shipped overseas. His processed remains will be exported to Belgium
or France, where the meat will be prepared in a kitchen.
- This is horse racing's dirty little secret - the one
those in the industry traditionally have ignored and outsiders barely hear
- In recent years, the fates of two decorated racers became
public. Exceller was an English champion more than 25 years ago, winning
15 of 33 starts - $1.6 million in purse money. He even defeated legends
such as Seattle Slew and Affirmed. In 1997, Exceller was killed in a Swedish
slaughterhouse, becoming one of the sport's first martyrs.
- Ferdinand won the 1986 Kentucky Derby and was retired
to stud. He was sold from a Kentucky farm in 1995 to a Japanese farm. He
didn't produce much and was sold to a dealer in 2002. News surfaced last
year that Ferdinand was slaughtered in late 2002.
- Those are the two names that people know. There are thousands
of other racehorses that have met a similar fate. Thoroughbreds that don't
cut it at the track have to go somewhere, and the last stop isn't always
a grassy meadow. Sometimes it's a dinner plate.
- The slaughter-for-human-consumption controversy has divided
the horse-racing industry. For years, it simply ignored the issue, but
lately, as Congress and courts have dug their hands into the exposed secret,
horse owners, trainers and breeders have come down on one side or the other.
- Nearly 50,000 horses were slaughtered and sold overseas
for human consumption in 2003, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture
figures. An additional 30,000 were shipped to Canada, where they were slaughtered,
and 1,000 were sent to Mexico.
- It generally is accepted in the horse industry that about
10 percent of the slaughtered horses are thoroughbreds, the sleek and powerful
breed usually foaled specifically to race. For comparison, the Jockey Club,
the breed registry for thoroughbreds in North America, annually registers
about 33,000 new foals.
- Somewhat surprisingly, groups such as the American Horse
Council, the Jockey Club and the American Veterinarians Association have
issued statements against a legislative bill that would ban horse slaughter
for human consumption.
- They generally contend that it's necessary in the horse
industry, and the alternative is a surplus of unwanted horses.
- In addition to the House bill, others actively are campaigning
to banish horse slaughter in the United States. A decision in the Texas
Supreme Court is expected in the coming weeks that will determine whether
the country's two remaining plants can continue operation legally. And
in Illinois, local communities are fighting to stop a new plant from opening
its doors this month.
- "We don't think it's right," says Rep. John
Sweeney, R-N.Y. "It's a process cloaked in covert darkness."
- Horsemeat is a delicacy in some parts of northern France,
southern Belgium, Holland, Italy and Japan. Though there are horses in
Europe, menus specifically advertise "American horsemeat," as
though horses here are bred for flavor. It is also easier and cheaper to
raise a horse to maturity in the United States than much of Europe.
- Horsemeat tastes like beef, with a fine, gamelike texture
and is lower in fat and cholesterol. It is legal to eat horse in the United
States, except in the few states that have specific laws that say otherwise,
such as California, Texas and Illinois.
- Though the number of horses slaughtered has risen in
the past two years, it has dropped dramatically since 1990. The issue has
boiled into a controversy, slowly growing from muted whisper at the track
to a debate that has split horse owners into two factions.
- "It's a touchy subject," says Richard Hancock,
the executive vice president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners
Association. "People come from a lot of different points of view.
- "While it's offensive and repulsive for me to think
about eating a horse, in Europe and other countries, they have a different
viewpoint. It just depends on how you're raised. We've probably got as
wide a view within our industry as any other issue."
- Officials with the weekly auction in New Holland, Pa.,
don't welcome the attention, but the horse-slaughter issue is perhaps most
- This is where fates are sealed.
- Every Monday afternoon in this small town - mostly sprawling
farmland in the middle of Amish country - families come to buy a pet for
their children, Amish farmers buy horses to pull their plows, ranchers
look for horses to work. And horse dealers show up looking to scrape the
bottom of the barrel, taking the horse industry's castoffs.
- About 200 horses are pulled out of the cramped stalls
on either side of the auditorium area. Each horse is walked or ridden down
a narrow dirt runway, put on display for the group in attendance.
- The building is like a giant shed. The stench is only
made worse by the heat, which barely is affected by the old fans slowly
spinning high above.
- The auctioneer isn't polished and usually can tell you
only the age of a horse and its tag number. But the price tag is usually
cheap. Although many horse auctions have minimum bids (at the Ocala Breeders
Sale, it's $1,000), here most horses sell for a few hundred dollars.
- A horse is escorted down the runway, and as the auctioneer
begins calling out numbers in rapid-fire succession, an Amish man in the
narrow pen watches for bids. He has a thick beard but no moustache; a white
straw hat, black pants and suspenders that climb over his shoulders.
- Once the bidding nears $500, the Amish man becomes more
animated as he tells the auctioneer a new bid has come in.
- "Hey-yeah!" he shouts, punching the air like
a home-plate umpire.
- Parked outside are trucks, horse-drawn buggies and long
trailers. The 200 people gathered on wooden bleachers inside are just as
eclectic. Aging farmers sit next to young women. Old Amish men play checkers
in a small room near the entrance. Included in the weekly gathering are
two men known as "killer buyers." They make a living buying horses
for cheap and selling them to the two Texas slaughterhouses.
- Those selling horses - someone who no longer needs a
riding horse, someone who's closing a farm, someone who needs the money
- at the auction often don't realize who is doing the bidding. The regulars
here recognize the killer buyers, but those who show up only occasionally
have no idea.
- Most of the buyers choose not to bid on the thoroughbreds.
Because of the way racehorses are trained and broken, bidders often think
it's too difficult to retrain racers for life on a farm.
- A 7-year-old mare with a shiny brown coat is walked in
front of the crowd. Her name is Meadow Bryte, and she was born in Ocala,
Fla. The bidding doesn't last long, not like in past sales. Meadow Bryte
once was valued, having sold for $375,000 at the 1998 Fasig-Tipton sale.
- She went for $82,000 in the 1999 Keeneland Breeding Stock
sale - and for $51,000 last November at the same Keeneland sale.
- In New Holland, she sells for $450 and is taken to one
of two "killer pens," where she joins a half-dozen other horses
doomed on this day to death.
- Fifty years ago, there were more than 30 equine slaughterhouses
operating in the United States. The number dropped to about 15 in the 1980s,
to four in 1999 and today to just two.
- Bel Tex, a Belgian-owned plant in Fort Worth, and Dallas
Crown, a Dutch-owned plant in Kaufman, Texas, are fighting for survival.
The decline in processing plants over the years largely is attributed to
a movement among American pet-food makers to wean dogs and cats off horsemeat
after facing a backlash from concerned pet owners.
- The two plants, which combine to employ 140 workers,
still seem to be profitable. Every week, killer buyers fill a quota of
horses and ship them into Texas by the trailer-load.
- The dealers are paid 35 to 50 cents per pound. (Most
thoroughbreds stand more than 5 feet tall and weigh about 1,000 pounds.)
The horses are slaughtered here and exported overseas for $1.38 a pound.
The meat sells in France for $7-$10 per pound.
- According to the most recent figures available, about
13,000 metric tons were shipped in 2001, more than $40 million worth. A
European organization called the Ethical Association of the Horse maintains
that more than 300,000 horses are consumed annually in France. There are
more than 1,000 horse butchers there, though most agree that horse consumption
has decreased since the mad-cow scare.
- Officials for the two horse slaughter plants declined
to grant the Orlando Sentinel access to their facilities. But a Dallas
attorney, who represents the companies in lawsuits that seek to shut them
down, says horse slaughter is not unlike a plant that processes any other
type of livestock.
- "The only difference is that horses are not raised
for the purpose of slaughter," says David Broiles, who has been fighting
a state attorney general's ruling for the past two years that seeks to
close the plants. "A horse gets to live some type of life first."
- The process that awaits condemned horses in Bel Tex and
Dallas Crown is not pretty.
- A horse is put in a cramped pen that limits its movement.
A worker then will lean over the horse and shoot a 4-inch retractable bolt
into its head. Horses cannot be killed in the slaughterhouses with lethal
injections because the toxic chemicals would poison the meat.
- The stunned horse is picked up by a giant claw and moved
down an assembly line. It is decapitated and then hung so it can be drained.
The horse's beating heart pumps all of the blood out of the body. The horse
then moves along the line where it is stripped of its hide and quartered.
- The process is approved by the American Veterinarians
- "People don't think about where food comes from,"
Broiles says. "They like to think it just comes out of a box. If you
were to walk them through it, they might be shocked. But these plants are
stainless steel. They're pretty high quality, and we have inspectors all
around, real organized skill workers."
- Critics say otherwise, but Broiles says that USDA-licensed
inspectors are on-site at all times.
- The animals funnel into the New Holland auction by 10
a.m., and five hours later, they'll leave in different directions.
- Sellers and buyers at the auction have been cited by
the Pennsylvania State Police and the New Holland police for animal abuse
and neglect. They've also been cited for allowing horses to be shipped
in double-decker trailers, which typically are designed for short-neck
- By 3 p.m., new owners load their purchases onto their
trailers. In the back, there is a pile of animals that died during the
course of the day: a large sheep, a couple of cows, a couple of pigs. A
euthanized horse will be there by day's end.
- Back inside, the two killer pens hold about 25 horses
apiece. There are some quarterhorses and some Arabians, but also thoroughbreds.
- Kelly Young, who lives in nearby Jacobus, Pa., spotted
a thoroughbred in one pen.
- "I just saw something in his eye," she says
later. Young runs Lost and Found Horse Rescue, which specializes in saving
horses that are headed to slaughter.
- Despite her outspoken contempt for them, Young has a
working relationship with some of the killer buyers. She says she's been
able to save more than 100 horses and place them in homes that want a pet
or a riding horse.
- On this day, she purchased Lieing Lary, a 6-year-old
gelding, for $500 - a quick $50 profit for the killer buyer. Many buyers
first try to sell their doomed purchases to those who might make use of
the horse. They can make more money this way.
- Young loaded Lieing Lary into her trailer and noticed
a treatment ointment on one of his legs.
- "He recently raced," she says. "He was
- Young was right. Lieing Lary had raced just three weeks
earlier in West Virginia. He hit the guard rail and finished in last place
in a $5,000 claiming race.
- Lieing Lary, a grandson of Secretariat foaled in Kentucky,
had made 43 starts - one victory, five second-place finishes and five third-place
finishes - and had career earnings of $50,161. But that guardrail meant
he would need months of rehabilitation, time he would be costing money,
not earning it. To keep a horse in training, an owner has to pay anywhere
from $25 a day to more than $100.
- He was sold - still wearing his lightweight racing shoes
- his career entirely spent.
- "What I think about mostly is how great they were
treated at one time and how there was all this hope and aspiration,"
says Young. "They were treated like superstars until they fail. Suddenly,
they're not worth anything. For no good reason, they're treated like a
hunk of meat."
- Young only can save one horse on this day. Nearly 50
of them will receive no second chance.
- Thoroughbreds are pumped out of Ocala, which bills itself
as the "Horse Capital of the World." Outside of Kentucky, Ocala
produces more racehorses than anywhere in the country.
- "Everybody here loves horses," says Hancock,
the head of the state's Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association.
- Florida has nearly 300,000 horses, and the horse industry
here annually generates product valued at $2.2 billion. With more than
600 farms producing solely thoroughbreds, many more horses are foaled in
Florida than can compete at the track. Breeders say they simply can't keep
all of the horses around.
- "You have to remember there's a commercial side
to it," says Eric Hamelback. He's the general manager of Live Oak
Stud, the Ocala farm that seven years ago foaled Meadow Bryte, the mare
bought at New Holland and sent to slaughter.
- He doesn't like to hear about horses going to slaughter
but says, "There's no way we can control a horse after it's sold."
- Sweeney, the representative from New York, was so horrified
with the idea of Europeans eating American horses that he drafted a bill
that would outlaw the slaughter. He has nearly 200 co-sponsors and says
it could go before the full House by year's end.
- During the next two weeks, headlines across the country
will trumpet the possibility of a Triple Crown winner. This time of year
is the pinnacle of the horse-racing season, when legends are carved from
the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and the Belmont. It's when racing
is at its finest and when slaughter for human consumption doesn't seem
- The sport and the industry survive not just because of
the champions that are remembered forever, but also because of the losers
that are easy to forget.
- © 2004, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). http://www.tallahassee.com/mld/tallahassee/news/nation/8783576.htm