From Derby winner to a slaughterhouse?

Updated: May 4, 2006, 2:35 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Could one of the horses running in Saturday's Kentucky Derby some day be killed in a slaughterhouse, carved up and shipped overseas to be served as someone's dinner? As ghastly as that may sound, it's not the least bit impossible.

It was 20 years ago that Ferdinand, with the great Bill Shoemaker riding, swooped past the leaders and captured the 112th Kentucky Derby. In the end, that meant little. He was an unsuccessful stallion and his economic value dwindled to virtually nothing. Sixteen years after he won the Kentucky Derby, he apparently died in a slaughterhouse somewhere in Japan.

The day Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) heard of Ferdinand's demise he was sickened, as were most Americans, most of whom feel no horse should be slaughtered, let alone a Kentucky Derby winner.

"That's how I became involved in this issue," Whitfield said yesterday during a conference call with reporters to drum up support for the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, which, if passed, would abolish horse slaughter in this country. "I was in my office in Washington and a horseman came in and said, 'Did you hear what happened to Ferdinand?'"

What happened was that after Ferdinand's popularity as a stallion declined, he changed hands a few times and eventually wound up with a horse dealer named Yoshikazu Watanabe. Wantanabe told a reporter from the Blood-Horse inquiring about Ferdinand's whereabouts: "Actually, he isn't around anymore. He was disposed of last year." That's disposed of, as in sent to slaughter.

"I was shocked by it," Whitfield said of his reaction when he heard the news. "I had been at that Derby and here on my desk I have a plate commemorating it. I looked around and saw that we were still slaughtering horses in the U.S. It is shocking and appalling."

In 2005, more than 91,000 horses were slaughtered in this country in three slaughterhouses, all of whom are owned by foreigners. No one is quite sure how many of those were thoroughbreds, but the best guess is that about 9,000 former race horses were killed in this country last year for human consumption.

Many are horses who were either too slow or infirm to compete any longer on the racetrack. Without a trip to the breeding shed in their future, these are horses that have little or no economic value except for the whatever the meat on their bones is worth.

But it can, and does, happen to horses like Ferdinand, one-time stars whose success on the racetrack was supposed to guarantee them a safe and long retirement. Exceller, the only horse ever to beat two Triple Crown winners, which he did in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup, died in a Swedish slaughterhouse in 1997. Phantom on Tour, who ran sixth in the 1997 Kentucky Derby, might have met a similar fate if rescue groups didn't step in before it was too late.

Most of the starters in this Kentucky Derby will go on to stud careers. Some will be worth many millions and will be treated like royalty until taking their last breath. But that isn't always the case. Phantom on Tour dropped into a claiming race at Penn National. El Bakan, who finished third in the 1993 Preakness, wound up in $3,500 claimers. Anyone know what happened to Basic Trainee? He ran in the 1998 Kentucky Derby but was last seen in a $3,500 claimer at Timonium in 2003.

Whitfield and Congressman John Sweeney (R-NY) want to make sure that there are no more Ferdinands. They are among the primary advocates of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, a bill that has been around for seven years but is still stalled in Washington. Its failure to become law is just one of thousands of examples of how truly rotten the political process can be.

Polls show that the vast majority of Americans are against the slaughtering of horses. In Texas, home to two of this country's three equine slaughterhouses, 72 percent of those polled said they were opposed to the slaughtering of horses for human consumption. That sentiment is shared by most members of Congress.

"Everything that has gone to the floor of the House or Senate relating to the issue of slaughter has passed by a large majority," Whitfield said.

But the will of the people too often doesn't matter in Congress. For varied reasons, cattlemen's groups, the American Quarter Horse Association and, shamefully, the American Association of Equine Practitioners are pro-slaughter. These groups have gotten to a couple of powerful lawmakers who have continually found ways to keep slaughter alive.

Chief among them is Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), whom is the Chair of the House Agriculture Committee. It should come as a surprise to no one that one of the top contributors to his 2006 campaign was the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

"What is frustrating is that there are two or three individuals in Congress who are thwarting the overwhelming sentiment of the American people that we put a stop to horse slaughter," Whitfield said.

Whitfield, Sweeney and others are still fighting the good fight and trying to find a way to get horse slaughter banned in this country. But that won't be the case May 6 when 20 horses line up for the Kentucky Derby. Will one some day be sent off to slaughter? Until the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act is passed, there are no guarantees.

Kentucky Derby television coverage begins Saturday, May 6 at 5 p.m. ET on NBC Sports.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com