by Jen Roytz
There is something to be said for the idea of strength in numbers, as the more people you have working toward a common goal, the more ideas you generate, networks you access and work you accomplish. When you want to tackle an issue or fix a problem two heads – or 20 or 50 – are better than one.
Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Aftercare Program (FLTAP), a Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance-accredited program, was created in 2004 on a foundation of collaboration for the good of the horse. Not long before that, two Finger Lakes trainers had given horses to what they thought would be an acceptable off-track home, only to be notified shortly thereafter that their horses had been found at auction in a kill pen.
For horsemen and racetrack management alike, that was a wake-up call, and two groups joined forces to create a solution that would serve as a model for the industry.
“We were the first adoption organization with brick-and-mortar facilities built on the grounds of a racetrack in the U. S.,” said Kim DeLong, president of FLTAP and administration manager at Finger Lakes Gaming and Race Track. “It was a collaboration between Finger Lakes Racetrack and the Finger Lakes Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA). Both of these trainers had sold their horses to what they thought were good homes, then found out they were in kill pens. It was a wakeup call for a lot of us when those two horses were found in the kill pen. We all knew we had to do something to create a safer, more reliable way to transition racehorses from the track to good homes.”
Support for the initiative came from a variety of avenues. Delaware North Companies, the parent company of Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack, donated two acres of land upon which to build their facilities and New York State Senator Michael F. Nozzolio assisted in securing $60,000 in state funding to help get the project off the ground. Soon after, Wanda Polisseni, who races Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds throughout the country under her My Purple Haze Stables banner and currently serves as vice president of FLTAP’s, contributed the necessary funds to build The Purple Haze Center, a 10,000-square foot barn that can house and start the retraining process for up to 16 Thoroughbreds at a time.Since taking in its first horses, the FLTAP has transitioned and placed well over 1,000 horses from the racetrack into non-racing homes. They also work with select foster farms when demand exceeds capacity.
“In the beginning there was a process to educating some of the horsemen about why responsible aftercare was important and what could happen if horses weren’t rehomed properly, but everyone has been really positive about it from day one,” said DeLong, who has worked at Finger Lakes for more than 30 years, starting in the horsemen’s office and working her way up to her current role. “We typically have a waiting list to get horses into our program and the trainers are usually willing to take the horses back to their farm or hold onto them at the track until we can take them in.”
The facility usually experiences an influx of retiring horses at the end of a race meet, so they expand their capacity to 18 or 19 horses by utilizing their indoor arena for temporary stall space. DeLong says FLTAP also works with Finger Lakes Finest, a trainer listing service in which trainers may list a horse for sale to connect with equestrians looking for off-track Thoroughbreds.
“They are a much-needed outlet because we can’t take them all,” said DeLong. “Whereas we are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and adopt horses out, the transaction process for horses going through Finger Lakes Finest is a purchase rather than an adoption, with ownership transferring directly from the trainer to the off-track purchaser. Our two programs complement each other well.”
One of the biggest barriers to equestrians adopting or buying horses directly from the racetrack is lack of access and knowledge about the backside. Many racetrack backsides across the country are not open to the public, and even when an equestrian gains access to the backside to consider a horse for purchase, it is a different world of horses than they’re used to and can often be intimidating or even misleading, as what may be of priority on evaluating a horse for racing purposes can be significantly different than what one will consider when evaluating them for off-track riding.
Manning the day-to-day operations of FLTAP is program manager Julie Smith, who, in addition to overseeing the care, training and adoption of all horses admitted into the program, is also an active trainer at Finger Lakes Racetrack with five horses currently in training.
“[Julie] works right along with the horsemen and knows them well. They trust that she’ll do right by them, and by their horses, and she is great about working with our potential adopters too,” said DeLong.
While FLTAP will take in horses with injuries, horses accepted into the program must be sound enough, or have the potential to be once their rehabilitation is complete, for a riding career after racing. For horses that do not meet this soundness requirement, FLTAP’s team works with the trainers to find other options for their horses, such as sanctuary retirement at another TAA-accredited facility or possible adoption into a companion-only home.
Those who adopt horses from FLTAP are put through a screening process to ensure they have the financial capabilities, proper facilities and a base of knowledge (or a knowledgeable trainer) to properly transition a horse from racing to riding and/or showing. Adopters are then required to submit updates, including photos, of their adopted horses three, six and 12 months after taking possession of their horse. Once their third update is submitted and approved, the adoption is officially complete, though many of FLTAP’s adopters send regular updates years after they’ve adopted their horses.
“It’s so good to hear about horses that have come through our program long after they found the right person. It’s a good feeling that these people feel comfortable with us to keep in touch,” said DeLong. “Every horse’s person is out there and eventually they find their way to us.”
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky and was recently named the Executive Director of the Retired Racehorse Project. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She is the go-to food source for one dog, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at Jenlroytz@gmail.com or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.