From rock stars to obscurity – searching for lost Thoroughbreds

Thoroughbred horses are bred to be specialised athletes. They’re microchipped, have long pedigrees and the National Horse Racing Association says it tracks their life and retirement. But what happens when the paper trail runs out?
There are about 300,000 horses in South Africa that fall into three general groups: racehorses, performance horses and workhorses. Of that number, about 30,000 are registered Thoroughbreds.
Among them are the rock stars, the glory horses you see thundering around the track with a colourful jockey crouched on their backs. While under the auspices of the racing industry, they live a pampered life.
A Thoroughbred usually races for about six years, but may have a lifespan of anywhere up to 25. Each year an additional 2,000 to 3,000 Thoroughbred foals are microchipped (all foals must be microchipped). The numbers stack this way:
30,000 Thoroughbreds, of which
5,500 in racing and
5,000 in breeding and a further
10,000 registered beyond that,
being added to by 2,000 foals a year.
This leaves about 10,000 unaccounted for.
These are all purpose-bred racehorses in a declining race industry in which it’s extremely expensive to keep a horse in race or breeding trim.
Is there an excess of Thoroughbreds? And, if there is, where are they going?
“If you don’t find a home for them,” a top horse owner, who wished not to be named, told me, “you have to bear the cost of giving it a retirement paddock on your farm. Some people do that for their champions, but they won’t do it just for the run-of-the-mill horses.”
A good many are sold or even given to private owners for leisure riding, dressage or show jumping. Probably more than we know about simply get euthanised. For an increasing number, however, this is a better option than the horse ending up at risk.
A dead horse is a heavy problem. If you have a large property and a front-end loader, burial is an option. But a more common option is to truck it to a horse-meat provider.
There’s a resistance to eating horses and, because of the medications that racehorses are routinely administered, their meat may not be suitable for human consumption. Their destination is generally via specialised abattoirs to lion parks and game farms.
According to owner and racing journalist Robyn Louw, “the fact that many racehorse owners choose to end a horse’s life at the end of its career may be more a comment on the environment outside of racing than it is on ...