The important role the kill buyer plays in Horse Racing in the United States


The claiming system, in conjunction with the liberal use of drugs, is a critical issue for the horse generally in racing in the United States. The system encourages a short term view by horsemen, and because the drug history does not travel with the horse, each new ownership does not have a complete record of how the horse has been treated; in addition there is a negative incentive for the prior owner to pass along this information.

There is a direct connection from the best tracks to the lowest tracks to the auctions and kill buyers to the slaughter house. Not only does the claiming system move horses around (mostly down), but horse traders do the same thing. Most of this activity occurs at the end of race meets where moving horses to new locations adds costs to the horsemen. So a horse could be sold, at the end of a Churchill meet, for example, to a trader buying horses for Charles Town or Mountaineer Park.

The current system works for the horsemen as long as there is someone willing to take the horse (claimed or sold) after a period of time. This is fine when a horse is running for 50k, then 40k and so forth. It gets tough when the horse hits the bottom. The last trainer is caught with the horse, and oftentimes will be under pressure from the racing secretary to either run the horse, or get rid of it, or lose the stall.

Programs like CANTER are great, they serve as an advertising medium, but less often do they become the place of last resort (i.e. they will rarely just take a horse when a horseman has to move one out.) The same with many of the rescues that work directly with the tracks. They are great, but the reality is, they either fill up quickly, or become very selective in terms of which horses they take, preferably ones that they can more easily rehab and move on.

That’s where the “horse trader” comes in. He/she will buy anything, $200, no questions (no need for a sound horse in this case, they are going to kill for the most part, although some traders might have some connections with private buyers to move the good ones on, or perhaps even sell them on to the bush track circuit etc.).

Most horsemen on the backside will know who the horse trader is. They might not like it, and don’t ask questions, but they might not have any choice. The advantage the trader has, over a rescue, he can take an unlimited number of horses. Thoroughbreds make good horse meat (drugs aside of course.)

Some tracks have responded to this issue with a “no slaughter” policy. While excellent on the surface, there is a potential for unintended consequences. Prior to a “no slaughter” policy, the horse trader might have just shipped the horses to the local auction, some might have then been picked up privately, or by a rescue. Now many go directly to a kill buyer, and that guy won’t let rescues see them because they don’t want to get the horse trader in trouble; the horse trader is his business partner. Similarly the horse trader cannot afford to get the horse’s connections in trouble. It’s all now hush hush.

How can we compete with the horse trader, kill buyer relationship? We need to design a system where a horseman can get the equivalent that he / she would get from the horse trader, at the time the horseman needs to move on her horse.

Of course there are plenty of horsemen who will do the right thing by their horses, always, but we have to be realistic about the system we have designed.

19 thoughts on “The important role the kill buyer plays in Horse Racing in the United States”

  1. We are finding this happening more and more. This is something that the tracks turn their heads on and pretend they don’t know it is going on. We are finding that we can pick up more and more tbs weekly that are being thrown away at the tracks. They are showing up in kill pens all over the United States and unless a rescue picks them up, they are loaded within a couple days into a semi going to Canada or Mexico. There is no support out there to help these horses. The burden is left on the rescues taking them in.

  2. Very well said, and along the lines of the conversation I had recently with some NTRA execs. I applaud the efforts and the impact the rescues are having on the industry, but unlike the execs within NTRA I don’t see them as a solution. I respect the funding being provided for rescue efforts, along with the TB breed shows and events. That said the ugly truth at all tracks, and especially the cheaper tracks, is that sending horses off with the kill buyers is a way of life.

    So many of these “new” trainers are businessmen/women and not horsemen. They see these animals as objects that provide the cash. I think there needs to be an industry overhaul that begins with the racing office, includes required education for all trainers being licensed and includes an assessment of some sort that puts money aside to provide for humane euthanasia for horses that sadly cannot be sold or adopted and whose future does not include a level of soundness. The racing industry has an image that has been severely tarnished and serious action needs to be taken before the sport is killed by these fly by night “trainers” looking to make fast cash by filling their barns and doing anything at all for the sake of a win, then discarding these animals without a thought.

    1. Yes, Sarah, all sectors of US racing and breeding should come together and work toward humane solutions. Sadly, there is no unity, and probably little if any interface …. all ‘players’ working for their own gains, and the horses suffer for it.

    2. I have always said that every breed association in the United States should add a certain amount ($5-$10) to each owner transfer. A larger amount ($20) to each new registration. Those funds should be held in an account for euthanizing unwanted or injured horses. Until there is a way to humanely dispose of these animals then it is silly to think that we can do away with killer buyers and Plants. Rescue organizations are great but the sheer numbers are overwhelming!

  3. I believe the no kill policies were incorporated to encourage people to make better choices for their horses when they were no longer viable racing prospects. Those ‘better’ choices are often not made and all that happens now is these horses enter what is referred to as the underground slaughter pipeline – they go directly to the kill buyers and from their directly to slaughter. It is almost impossible to obtain any of these horses once this has been set in motion due to any potential repercussions that may filter back to those that sent these horses down this road in the first place. Once again, the horses lose. The only way to stop this chain of events is to meet or beat the killers prices before they head down this road and to have something in place for these horses to go to immediately – one day longer is too long. This requires funding and organizations willing to step up to the plate. If this was currently available, there would be little to no risk of these horses heading to slaughter in the first place.

    1. Local/regional rescues, and the average person looking for a horse would have to out-bid the kill-buyers’ wallet. That’s possible, as the KB’s are in it for profit, and if they can’t make that, they’ll walk away, giving a humane/responsible person a chance at that horse.
      Yes, Sabina, fewer foals annually could mean that fewer horses ship to slaughter in total. A foal is a beautiful sight, but until we practice conservation in breeding, the transports will continue to take their full loads to the Mexican and Canadian slaughter plants. We are responsible. We won’t stop slaughter, but we’re capable of reducing the numbers of new foals.

    2. It seems the no slaughter policy sounds good and makes the general public only sees the policy. So many of the general public have no idea horses are slaughtered for human consumption. We need to educate people, horse owners and non horse owners alike. Then more pressure can be put of TB tracks to enforce stricter following of the TB’s who leave the track.

  4. Really excellent deduction Alex. .
    I see one fix as reducing the amount of Thoroughbreds that can be bred/registered to race. Less horses to save from slaughter.Maybe make it a lottery. Since people are less and less interested in racing these days and race courses are closing it may not be as crazy as one thinks.

  5. Sabina might be on to something. Since we seem to have too many horses, and not enough solvent tracks (look what happened to Suffolk Downs), when do we say enough to the breeders? Maybe there should be a limit/lottery. Certainly food for thought.

  6. I believe there will always be owners/trainers that don’t really care what happens to the horse once it’s career is over…and it’s this mentality that is killing our industry. Who wants to be a fan of a sport that kills off even healthy young athletes that are not competitive? This needs to change to save our sport. Much could be done if industry leaders became more involved. Most turn a blind eye now and prefer to avoid the truth.

    1. I agree, Lynn. But who are these “industry leaders”? Can we call them out by name and demand that they become more involved? Show them the damage? Tell them what needs to be done? Are these people industry leaders or just people/business making the most money within the industry? Who has the influence? Who has the character to DO something?

  7. The entire industry is accountable for what happens to horses when their speed and stamina has been abused and ruined. Everyone connected has to wake up to the reality that the industry has become a cesspool of crime and abuse not only against the horses but for backstretch personnel as well. Even Saratoga has its disgraces and should be ashamed of the evils imposed on the horses and on the underpaid and undervalued grooms who truly do give love and comfort to the horses entrusted to their care.

  8. I’m very glad to see this discussion, Alex. Tx for supporting this. I’d do anything to protect a horse from going to slaughter, and I claimed an at-risk racing TB for that very reason. And I was damn glad to be able to do that, for both the horse and myself.
    Horse traders, the claiming system in US horse racing, kill buyers. livestock auctions/sales … there are endless opportunities for someone to flip a horse and never give its whereabouts a second thought. As a large animal, a horse is amazingly capable of disappearing.
    To my great disappointment, I don’t see how any effort to secure US horses from slaughter can succeed. “Flipping” horses is just too easy to do. There is no oversight by any reputable authority, and little if any documentation. Any effort like micro-chipping or tattooing is only as good as the checking done, and to then successfully connect with a responsible, interested, and able previous owner.
    Shame on the over-breeding AQHA and their love of AI and profits. Don’t ever doubt it: it’s always about the money, whether $20 USD/LB dressed horsemeat, or wanting that ‘new improved’ dapple grey now stepping down the loading ramp and into your paddock.
    Even with the unregulated practices on this non-meat species, even that moral lapse does nothing to prevent US horses from shipping to slaughter …. ~12,000 to Mexican slaughter plants in the first seven weeks of 2015. A similar number shipped to Canada plants as well:
    I’d give my full effort to ending horse slaughter and its profiteers.
    I wish with all my heart that unlimited breeding was not the norm. That’s one place to start.

  9. Racing’s image has been tarnished because people are now more and more aware of what has been going on for decades and are disgusted by it. There has been ample time to have a real system in place to prevent the abuse but not one person or organization has stepped up to make a real difference for more than a handful of horses. To rely on rescues that use their own funding to clean up a problem they did not create is pretty low. I don’t see racing’s feeding the slaughter pipeline ending anytime now or in the future. Not until the US closes it’s borders and even then they will most likely find a way around the regulations. I would attend races if this was not an ugly fact of life but I have never nor will I ever do so.

  10. Excellent suggestion about maybe a little control over all the breeding of these horses. Yes they have a beautiful life as yearlings but that is it. After they are broke and start their racing careers, very few of them ever see that green grass again except to race over it. I worked almost my entire life as a rider and I know the ropes, unfortunately. When one is injured or running poorly, then they are gone. When I would enquire as to what happened to them and was given thooe answer he went to the “farm”. C

    1. I was told this is a business and don’t fall in love with them. That is pretty much the aditude of the majority of the trainers that I know. With a little control and less horses being bred then maybe they might also start caring more for them and not running them before their bones are fully developed and more conservative. I saw a horse run one day and was right back in 2 days later. Why was the trainer allowed to run that horse back so soon? Because he had “pull”. Also in the racing world it is definately the motto of – its not what you know, but who you know.

  11. Unfortunately, there are only two effective options for ending this practice. One is to turn public opinion enough that it will no longer be profitable for the industry to carry on this way. The other is to place pressure on our legislators to outlaw these “business practices.” Both involve wide spread education of the public.
    Horse rescues cannot handle the volume of equine industry discards. And, rescues should not be expected to take on the responsibility of dealing with the industries “unprofitable by products”. Breeding, racing and showing communities should be forced to be responsible for the humane treatment of their animals (even if that means humane euthanasia).

  12. I would contact the SPCA as soon as you can. If the horse’s ciidntoon is extremely poor, then there is a high chance of it being put down. The longer you wait to report it, the morel likely that its ciidntoon will become so bad that it has to be put down. Luckily, a lot of horses are sent to rescues, rehabilitated, and adopted out. If the horse does have to be put down, it is a much better option that if the owner of that sick horse decided to sell it to slaughter. A nice quiet injection is much better than a horrible trailer ride out of the country, a month or two on a feed lot, followed by a painful death. Do what you can to help this critter, I am sure that he will thank you for it!

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