No vacancy for retiring race horses

Ambro Blacktie may have retired from racing, but it seems his luck is holding – for now. The champion standardbred, who won $360,000 in his prime, was turned out a couple of months ago at the age of 10.

Alina MacLeod

Alina MacLeod

Ambro Blacktie may have retired from racing, but it seems his luck is holding – for now.

The champion standardbred, who won $360,000 in his prime, was turned out a couple of months ago at the age of 10.

April 5, before the post-season squeeze, the one-time Horse of the Year arrived at Greener Pastures, a rehabilitation and adoption centre in South Langley.

April 15 was the final day of the winter/spring season at Fraser Downs Racetrack.

Horses like Blacktie, who’s retiring sound and three-year-olds like Kokanee, a healthy, good-looking newbie who just never got up to speed, will be looking for new lives beyond the racecourse.

Greener Pastures is a society that helps find homes for retired standardbreds, described as friendly, loving horses who thrive on having  a job to do and try their best to please.

With the season at a close, any new horses will have to be turned away, says Alina MacLeod, program coordinator at Greener Pastures, which is already at full capacity with 11 horses.

“If we don’t take them in the next couple of days, they’ll be gone,” she said.

Some will end up giving their horses to the man who pulls up to the barns at Fraser Downs and takes unwanted racehorses away by the trailer-full.

“We figure he’s a horse dealer,” MacLeod says. “I’m sure he finds homes for some of them.”

Others aren’t so lucky. You may never hear the actual word “slaughterhouse” from a Fraser Downs insider, but it’s no secret what fate awaits at least some of the not-so-lucky, four-footed athletes once their racing careers are over.

The situation is worse this year.

“With the shorter racing season, it’s hard for them to hang on to them, too,” she said.

Normally, trainers break babies over the summer, hoping to recoup expenses for feed, veterinary care and upkeep once racing resumes.

“If there’s no money coming in, there’s some nice horses here that are going to lose their lives,” veteran trainer Tom Bourdeau told The Reporter recently.

Some horses will find homes in rural Mennonite communities, as pack horses, or as riding horses, thanks to Greener Pastures.

The shorter racing season at Fraser Downs has also placed an added financial burden on Greener Pastures.

The main source of income for Greener Pastures are 50/50 draws held every race day to raise cash for food, vet, farrier care and labour.

The previous September-June season meant there was only a two-month gap to budget and plan for.

“Now we have a big six month gap,” said MacLeod. who has worked at Fraser Downs as a groom since she was 13.

Fortunately, a reprieve came during the Harness Racing B.C. awards gala – Red Star stables donated three two-year-old colts to a silent auction that raised $10,000. A very big night. “We would have been scrambling,” MacLeod said.

They’ll scrape by this summer, buying time for more horses like Blacktie who deserve a second chance after giving so much to racing.

He’s only been here a week but he’s already a favourite.

“He’s taken to it so well. They dropped him off the first day and he picked up the trot right away. He is just a very nice boy.”

Other former racers find it a difficult adjustment to the leisurely, more lonesome life of retirement.

“They’re used to being in the stalls and they’re also used to getting worked six days a week.”

There are 265 success stories on the website,

With a little TLC and saddle practice, Blacktie will be able to count himself among them.

“Normally,” MacLeod smiles, gently leading Blacktie out of his paddock onto a grassy field to graze, “we find a home for everyone.”

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