Maybe it’s the name. Tranquility Farm offers visions of a blissful world where Thoroughbreds no longer able to compete on the racetrack live out their lives like happy seniors at a retirement community, taking lazy afternoon strolls and playing parlor games into the night. Hay, feed, veterinary supplies and services just parachute out of the heavens.
“There is this ‘Valhalla’ perception of horses going to the retirement farm that everything is rosy,” said Priscilla Clark, who has dedicated the last 27 years of her life to taking care of injured or abandoned Thoroughbreds, and has been president of Tranquility Farm in Tehachapi, Calif., since 1998.
“Most people don’t understand the actual process,” she said. “In order to be able to accept a horse, we have to pay for the transportation, the veterinary services, the supplies, the shoeing, the stall care. Most racing injuries require a six- to eight-month rehabilitation period – whether it’s a soft-tissue injury or a fracture. That horse is going to have a serious vacation, and it’s a big process getting them mentally and physically prepared to be useful for someone else.”
The process takes time – and money. Money for all charities evaporated as the economic slump has taken hold over the last few years, and Thoroughbred rescue, retirement and re-training facilities are especially feeling the pinch.
“There is less disposable income and less money,” said Clark. “We have had a decline in our donations and in our ability to have successful fundraisers.Because of the economy, adoptions have slowed down considerably, too. It used to be the horses fit for adoption would be gone as soon as you put them up on the Internet. Now people are more careful – especially out here in California, where it is more expensive than other parts of the country to own a horse. We have really been impacted by the economy.”
And it’s not just the general economy that’s been hurting. Previously, one of Tranquility Farm’s biggest fundraisers was an annual sale of stallion seasons, but the number of commercial stallions standing in California and the mare population have both plummeted.
A Tranquility Farm calendar, which for the past two years has featured recently crowned Horse of the Year Zenyatta, has taken over as the farm’s most important financial lifeline. Each of the horses featured on the pages of the calendar is sponsored by their owner, and the calendar is then sold. Because of Zenyatta’s popularity the 2011 calendar was sold out quickly. “I wish we had printed more,” Clark lamented.
It was at Monday night’s Eclipse Awards dinner in Miami Beach, Fla., that Jerry Moss read Clark’s tribute to Zenyatta from the 2011 calendar while accepting the Horse of the Year trophy with his wife, Ann.
“If you love Thoroughbred horses you go through life hoping that you can see just one more in whose presence the clouds fall away to reveal the mountaintop,” she wrote. “It can take a generation or infinitely longer for such a horse to arrive, a horse that is capable of carrying the human heart. For the last one hundred years we know them all by name, but Zenyatta brought to us a beauty that was a tonic for the soul. She allowed us to believe in the impossible, and it was the light of her being as much as the thrill of her races that got us dancing. Zenyatta was transformative.”
Horses like Zenyatta that are retired to the breeding shed after their racing careers are over are part of the “super minority” that Clark and others like her normally don’t have to worry about. “But the majority will end up in trouble,” she said.
Clark learned of horse slaughter and unwanted horses when she operated a small mom and pop racing, breeding and training farm.
“I didn’t know there was a problem at the track,” she said. “I just assumed all these horses getting picked up were going out to farms. One day I learned ahorse was being sent to a slaughter house and had a confrontation. I bought that horse – it was the first one I rescued — and it lit a fire in me.”
That was in 1983.
More than a decade later, when Clark was doing what she could to help unwanted Thoroughbreds, using her own resources and on a rented farm, she received acall out of the blue from Thoroughbred owner and breeder Gary Biszantz, whoalso had a passion for retired horses. “He had heard about my work and what I was doing,” Clark said. “I told him why and how I did it, and he said, ‘Well, if you find a good farm that would work for the type of work you’re doing, call me up and let me know.’ After a while I found this farm, and called him back.
“I’d never even met him,” Clark said, “but we had this meeting, and it was the most stunning event of my life. He bought the farm, shook my hand, and said, ‘I’ll be in touch.’ There were no fences, no water … the place was a bramble batch. I said, ‘You’d be better be in touch.'”
The farm originally was named the Harry A. Biszantz Memorial Center in honor of Biszantaz’ father, who instilled in him his passion for Thoroughbreds.
“We’d fund-raise, brought in sponsors, got pledges for buildings and fences,” she said. “This was in the 1990s, and things were good. People were much more optimistic. Now everybody is fighting for their life.”
Tranquility Farm continues to have the support of individuals like Biszantz and John and Jerry Amerman, among others, but the needs have never been greater. Hundreds of horses have moved into and out of Tranquility Farm to new owners over the years, but the supply of injured or unwanted Thoroughbreds far outpaces the demands. She keeps a steady population of about 100 – about 30 of which are suitable for adoption.
Clark has proposed a solution to industry leaders, institutional funding that begins when a horse first arrives at the racetrack. But that suggestion hasfallen on deaf ears.
“When a horse first goes to the racetrack, as part of the owner’s responsibility, a deposit could be made to cover the contingency if a horse is injured, unwanted and requires services of a non-profit,” Clark said. “That’s the majority of horses. If we could make reach sort of civil consensus among ourselves that owners are going to put a deposit in the office allowing non-profits to take the horses and know we have a couple of thousand dollars, people would be much more willing to accept them into programs. Now it is so difficult for us to take in the horses — the overhead just keeps going up, and nobody has enough fund-raising ability to match the need there is.”
The Tranquility Farm retirement program began with a request but not a requirement that owners sponsor the horses the farm takes in. “So many people abused the privilege, sending horses to us without sending a dime,” she said. “People who don’t donate, who just dump horses, they are asking us to do two jobs: take on all the work and take on the financial responsibility. Every retirement program I’m aware of is in the same boat.
“My silver bullet for this is that everybody decide at some point that it is no longer acceptable for an owner to leave an injured horse in a stall, to turn on his heel, and tell the trainer to get rid of it. If an owner were not permitted to do so, there would be grousing, but at least we wouldn’t have the horror stories, the slaughter of these horses. If we could just rise above that, it would be amazing.
“I would love to think that all of us who do this after all these years could leave racing in a better state — a state where this sport is not associated with slaughter or animal abuse. If we could just purge that from the publicperception, it would do so much. The fix is not that expensive, with some type of institutional support. We need to get away from the perception that every horse leaving the track is a ‘rescue.’ It’s a terrible perception we have. We need to rise above that.”
© 2002 Daily Racing Form Reprinted with permission