There was a front page article published December 18, 2016 in Maine’s largest newspaper about aftercare for Standardbred racehorses in the state. We’d like to address some of the counterpoints made by opposing views to the Standardbred Rescue community and others allied to the field. Here’s the link to the Maine Sunday Telegram article: http://www.pressherald.com/2016/12/18/rescuers-suggest-casino-cut-for-retired-harness-racing-horses/.

And here’s our response:

It’s good to see a dialogue emerging on how casino funds from the closing of Scarborough Downs may be allocated, especially in light of the need for aftercare of retired Standardbred racehorses in Maine. We’d like to address some of the counterpoints made by opposing views to the need for aftercare of the Standardbred racehorses who drive the industry, and put the discussion in the context of the business opportunity this need ironically presents.

First, while we appreciate that there are multiple viewpoints to the issue of what happens to racehorses on retirement, it seems that some people allied to the racing industry minimize the problem. There seems to be a perception that it’s only the five or six animals that end up in such dire circumstances as to require law enforcement intervention each year who need any support, or that these animals in such an extreme state of crisis are representative of the need for aftercare as a whole. Where do all of those other estimated 195 racehorses retired in Maine each year really go?

While racing agents say the data is unavailable on animals despite their being branded and tracked, it’s this same data that’s used to claim that owners are notified when one of their horses ends up in the kill pen. The data is either available or it’s not. Moreover, claiming that it solves the problem to notify an owner that a former horse of theirs is in the kill pen doesn’t delve into the issue deep enough: the next question is, how many owners actually act on that information, and go down to New Holland or other kill pens to rescue their former horse, who’s now facing imminent slaughter? Not many. Currently, the rescuers are whom are called upon to go save the horses from slaughter. And these rescuers are asked to fund the rest of the horses’ lives not with their winnings, nor any proceeds from the gambling industry that used them in their racing days, but with money the rescuers have to raise themselves, one tin cup at a time.

Yet where Rep. Don Marean (R), for example, characterizes the need for aftercare as “fabricated on emotion” in the December 18, 2016 Maine Sunday Telegram article, and he and others made their views clear that the question is strictly a business issue, let’s focus, then, on the business side of the equation.

An aftercare facility—a spinoff of the Standardbred racing industry in the state—could be far from the “pipe dream” that Rep. Marean currently describes such a venture to be for an industry that he says is “struggling to stay afloat.” It could, in fact, be the sought-after key to its turnaround. It doesn’t make sense, from a business perspective, to invest millions more dollars into the same business model of an industry that’s “long been in decline” after tens of millions of dollars in casino subsidies have already been invested there to no avail over the past decade. But it would make good economic sense to proceed with a next-generation Standardbred industry model that could sustain much of the same types of jobs—and generate a new branch of tourism and public goodwill to boot. In this next-generation vision for the Standardbred industry, racehorses who have left the track could come to the aftercare facility to be retrained for new pleasure horse careers such as pleasure driving, saddle-horse riding, trail riding, and other uses. Trainers could train the horses; riders and drivers could pay for lessons; educational and community programs could be supported; and the horses could go to good homes when ready, making room for the next retirees from the Bangor Raceway to come in.

So in this model we might be serving fewer gamblers in the Scarborough area, but we would be supporting more pleasure riders, drivers, trainers, school groups, 4H clubs, pony clubs, feed suppliers, farm suppliers, facilities managers, hotels, B&Bs, and equine therapists, as well as the tourism industry. These groups can generate important revenue for the state—revenue streams that are fresh, sustainable, and simultaneously compatible with both the other gambling and racing concerns in the state as well as the community at large. These are good reasons to vote for adapting to the current reality, not denying it, nor trying to reach for a distant past.

We actually think that Rep. Marean could be uniquely qualified to lead such a transition. He has already proven himself to be a capable fighter for the industry—after all, he’s successfully lobbied for the continuation of racing in the face of a faltering industry, and helped get those tens of millions of dollars invested to date in an attempt to recover the prior racing model. And in anticipation of the closing of Scarborough Downs in 2017, Marean already set legislation in place in 2016 so that “any unallocated funds will be diverted to pay the operating costs of the Maine Harness Racing Commission” (MHRC). It would now be a question of identifying what the Racing Commission would do with those funds. Perhaps more transparency into how the public MHRC entity spends its funds would be beneficial, so the public can understand whether they share the current interests of the Commission, or would like to explore new ideas. A solid endowment for an aftercare facility funded by the existing casino subsidies and closing of Scarborough Downs could ensure sustainability of the new economic model we propose. And what a great legacy such a visionary business outcome could be for a leader like Rep. Marean.

Thank you, again, for exploring this challenging issue. We believe that the interested parties can come together to form a mutually beneficial, next-generation model for owners, riders, communities and, yes—even for the horses.

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