On a pleasant California day in April 2016, Songbird—Fox Hill Farms’ undefeated filly champion—won the Santa Anita Oaks. Thousands of fans were on hand in Arcadia, California, that day to cheer her on.
The same day, the owners of Fox Hill Farms made a donation to the California Retirement Management Account (CARMA), a nonprofit that funds the rehabilitation, retraining or retirement of thoroughbreds that have raced in California. Veterinarians are a big part of that, offering discount or pro bono surgeries to make a difference in many of the recuperating horses’ lives.
“The Porters, owners of Songbird, graciously reached out to us to help our charity,” says Lucinda Mandella, CARMA’s executive director. “They were interested in doing something tied to the filly, especially because of her incredible popularity among racing fans.”
Rick Porter donated the racing silks that jockey Mike Smith wore in her previous four starts—all signed by Porter, Smith and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. In addition to the silks, Songbird T-shirts and hats were specially printed for sale by the nonprofit.
What does CARMA do?
Dreamed up by the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the nonprofit’s mission is to match racehorses with the right living scenario, “so they get to the right kind of place to live out their days,” Mandella says.
That mission is difficult if the horses disappear temporarily—or permanently—from their racing careers. “Horses from the racetrack sometimes had a difficult time once they got out into the ‘wider world,’” Mandella says. “[It was hard] to track them and maintain their safety and security.”
"Horses from the racetrack sometimes had a difficult time once they got out into the wider world."
Its supporters hope CARMA will provide an alternative for thoroughbred owners and trainers who can’t find colleagues or friends to take in the horses and end up selling them away from the world of racehorse owners.
The 501(c)3 nonprofit gave out its first grants in 2008, funded then and now by a percentage of purse money donated by thoroughbred racehorse owners. A full 100 percent goes directly to care of horses in veterinary fees, feed, board and more, according to Mandella.
There are some basic requirements for participation. For instance, racehorse owners need to participate in the purse contribution program and make sure colts have been gelded prior to joining the program. They also need to make an effort to retire the horse on their own.
“We’re here as a resource, but we don’t see ourselves as the only retirement option,” Mandella says. “But most horses meet the criteria and are accepted into the program.”
In California, the Stronach Group, which bills itself as the world’s leading horse racetrack operators, is currently matching contributions that horse owners make through the purse deduction program.
How does CARMA work?
Once a horse is accepted into the program, veterinarians perform a diagnostic assessment based on physical condition, retiring injury and potential time to recover. During recovery, the horse’s temperament is evaluated.
“After that initial assessment, we do a ‘layup,’ for 30 to 60 days or sometimes longer,” Mandella says. “During that time, we take photos of the horse, do a write-up and present each horse to our aftercare partners.”
Evaluation work can include ultrasound, radiography, surgery, and more.
The favored “local triage” center is Winner’s Circle Ranch in Bradbury, California, owned by Don Shields, DVM, who has more than 20 years of racetrack veterinary experience. Shields gives CARMA a discounted board rate as well as discounted or pro bono diagnostic and evaluation work that can include ultrasound, radiography and surgery (if necessary) as well as injections of platelet-rich plasma or interleukin-1 receptor antagonist protein. He then advises the CARMA staff of the horse’s capabilities and best options for a future “leisure” career; for example, trail, dressage or pasture. Then the report goes to CARMA’s aftercare partners.
Where do the horses go?
“We usually get dozens of emails [from aftercare partners and homes] in response” to CARMA reports, Mandella says.mThese are organizations that specialize in permanent retirement—farms that usually have larger herds that live outside year-round. These horses are handled but not ridden.
It’s a different situation when a horse just needs a temporary respite, according to Mandella: “If a trainer says, ‘I’ve got a horse with a bowed tendon that needs six months off,’ that works out too. Within a year the horse may be healed and rehomed, and someone else will pay for its upkeep.”
Sometimes a low-cost or no-cost procedure means a completely different result for the nonprofit, the former horse owner and the racehorse, Mandella says.
"Putting a screw into a sesamoid can make the difference between a horse being pasture-sound only and still being able to be used as a trail horse."
“Horses benefit from surgeries—at cost or donated—where previously the owners or trainers had elected not to do so, to just retire the horse,” she says. “From our perspective, putting a screw into a sesamoid can make the difference [between] a horse being pasture-sound only and still being able to be used as a trail horse. We’d like to keep as few as possible with our permanent retirement homes, because we need them to continue to take horses. And the only way they can do that is to send other horses to interested owners.”
How is CARMA growing?
The biggest change in CARMA’s work has been better and more frequent rehabilitative surgery, Mandella says.
“We’ve had surgeons discount and donate their time to make it more affordable to begin to do these minor surgeries to help heal and rehabilitate horses,” she says. “We’ve made our goal to make these horses as adoptable as possible.”
The program has branched out to more medical facilities, more ranches and more boarding properties. The latter come into play when a horse doesn’t necessarily need care but requires time in a roomy stall or out in the pasture with a “buddy”—time for that bowed tendon or other injury to heal.
"If I can give these horses a little more time, they have a better shot of being placed."
The program averages about 10 to 12 horses at any one time, and in any given year it has helped as many as 30 horses. The extra time, Mandella says, is the saving grace.
“That number is not a great number in terms of turnover, but we’re giving these horses sufficient time to recover from their injury,” she says. “If I can give these horses a little more time initially, they have a better shot of being placed.”
And once CARMA adopts one out, the program is ready to take another horse.