When you visit Florida TRAC (Florida’s Thoroughbred Retirement and Adoptive Care) in Indiantown, Florida, you feel the energy and hum of a very busy place where many horses are being ridden and trained in an efficient manner. But what stands out most is the relaxed and friendly attitude of the Thoroughbreds and the people who are caring for them. Because of the warm climate, the horses are kept in the stalls during the day, lazily enjoying the surroundings beyond their stall guards. It was easy to meet just about every horse available for adoption. Walking down the shedrow with farm manager and trainer Katie Schmit and board Vice President Jena Antonucci, I learned each horse’s individual preferences and personality quirks. What struck me was their knowledge of each horse as an individual.
“We have fun. There are not a lot of frowns around here,” says Schmit, a successful horse show competitor and exercise rider. “Every day the horses make the staff and volunteers smile. These horses do something for people. Their energy is contagious.”
Today, more than 35 years after the birth of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, horse racing’s first aftercare organization, solutions to the complex facets in aftercare continue to evolve. More individuals from the thoroughbred racing industry and other backgrounds have become active in the cause, bringing new perspectives and ideas. The result is an evolving landscape of talented people, programs and ideas on a national, regional and local level addressing the issue of Thoroughbred aftercare.
Florida TRAC started in 2010 by Gulfstream Park, The Stronach Group and the Florida HBPA, retrains and re-homes horses retired from racing in South Florida. Recently, Florida TRAC saw changes in its board and management team. The new team, made up of a small active board and three experienced staff members, has a unique approach to fulfilling its mission. The effectiveness of this team is in large part because Antonucci, a hands-on board volunteer, is a successful high-profile trainer and she is passionate about making sure that racehorses are trained and managed in a way that gives them the best chance for a long and happy life after racing. Like many conscientious trainers, she insists that her racing stable owners make the right decisions for the whole life of the horses in her barn and strives to make that the norm for all owners and trainers in the business. Owner responsibility is the center of Antonucci’s philosophy and goal of viable transition plans for all thoroughbreds racing in Florida–the pool from which Florida TRAC gets its horses. It is up to owners and trainers to responsibly re-home their racehorses in Florida if the horse is not eligible for Florida TRAC.
“It is ultimately the owner’s responsibility to do the right thing for their racehorse,” said Antonucci. “Every horse has a second career that suits it. I like to see them find not only a second job but their swagger in doing something that they really like.”
Florida TRAC is particular about which horses it accepts and is organized in a way to make the transition process as seamless and individualized as possible, maximizing the organization’s success rate in placing horses in the right second career. If they succeed in that realm, they make room for more retiring racehorses. With the help of equine vet Dr. Bonnie Comerford of Teigland, Franklin and Brokkem, another dedicated board member, every horse’s physical condition and potential transition plan from a physical point perspective is identified immediately so that the team at the farm knows exactly what the issues are, if any.
The Florida TRAC board manages all the operations and business. The training team focuses on keeping the horses happy and working with the potential adopters to make the best match. Successful adoptions depend on Schmit’s ability to match the right horse to the right adopter. FL TRAC doesn’t post adoption fees for their horses, many of which are 100% sound for any discipline, because a fee could discourage the best adopter for that horse. Horses adopted from TRAC can be sold by their adopters.
“We believe strongly in positive energy, positive people and a positive message,” says Antonucci. “We are not a rescue. We are a transition and a way for these horses to go on and flourish in their next career. We give Katie and the team the time and opportunity to do that.”
Diana Pikulski is the former executive director of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. She now works as a non-profit consultant and operates the Thoroughbred Adoption Network.