By Jerry Izenberg/Columnist Emeritus
April 25, 2010, 11:00AM
On Saturday, the 20 richest thoroughbred racehorses on the continental land mass will go to the post at Churchill Downs in Louisville for the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby. As always, there will be the blanket of roses for the winner, the high-fashion, broad-brimmed hats of the ladies in the clubhouse and excitement that only the fastest two minutes in sports can generate.
But on that same day, light-years away from the juleps and the tote boards and “My Old Kentucky Home,” other long-forgotten thoroughbreds, standardbreds and show horses will be in a different kind of fight . . . a shameful last stand in defense of their very lives . . . a fight most of them will lose.
All that stands between them and the horrific killer factories of Mexico and Canada and the dinner tables of Europe and Japan are a nationwide chain of determined rescuers who save more lives than you think but in sheer numbers lose more battles than they can ever hope to win.
This is the story of one such woman’s fight.
A TWIST OF FATE
If Kelly Young hadn’t gone to the auction that day to try to buy a show pony . . . and if she hadn’t seen the donkey with the twisted front leg . . . and if she hadn’t bumped into his owner . . . who can say with certainty how many horses would have died since then.
So her amazing story really begins almost by accident with a lame donkey just an hour this side of its scheduled journey toward death.
Long before she rescued her first thoroughbred from the killer pens of the auction blocks, Young was in the business of buying what she calls “show pony prospects,” training them and reselling them.
She had been a horsewoman all her life.
And then she saw the donkey. He was 10 hands in height, silver in color, 12 years old and crippled. When she saw him, she forgot about the show pony she had come to the auction to buy.
Some would say what followed in that instant was an epiphany that launched a mission. The owner tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘‘I don’t want him. He’s yours for 50 bucks.’’
“I had a friend,” Young recalls, “who was an attorney for a humane society. I called her and she said she knew someone with a shelter in Maryland who would take him. I had no idea of what was about to happen.”
What followed was a passion that enabled her to rescue close to 1,000 horses — mostly thoroughbreds — from the “killer auctions.”
It was triggered by a memory burned indelibly into the stores of her mind that first day at the auction — 300 horses roped together, filthy and terrified by their inhumane surroundings and headed on the final stages of a horrible journey toward torture and death.
Most were thoroughbreds, used up by the tracks until they hit the bottom levels, who failed as cheap claimers and their owners or trainers dumped them into the depths of the killer auctions.
‘PURE EVIL’ AT WORK
Kim Zito, the wife of two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito, knows exactly how the image motivated Kelly Young. She understands what has driven so many like Kelly to the front lines of this battle against the vicious slaughter of horses for table meat in the savage killer plants of Mexico and Canada. She, too, is part of that battle.
“I know how Kelly must have felt that first day,” Zito says of her friend. ‘‘I wanted to know firsthand what happens at a killer auction so I could speak for reform as an eyewitness.
“For me, that first view was like looking directly in the face of pure evil.
“You are literally walking into hell. It is madness come to life. You see men hitting the horses with cattle prods and the horses are screaming in terror, kicking each other in fear, and the worst is after the sales. They take them out back to load them in trucks for the trip across the border. They are so high-strung and they have gone from a pampered life to this ending,” Zito said.
“And you know about the torture that awaits them because if they were euthanized you couldn’t sell the meat with all that poison in it. Instead, in Mexico they stab at the spine with ice picks until the horse is manageable for the actual killing. . . . It’s so horrible.”
“Most people,” Kelly explains, “who only have casual information about the killer auctions believe that all these horses are old or sick or crippled. They’re wrong. Most of them are sound, healthy and under the age of 10. But to the dumpers they are worth more dead than alive.
“I know this because so many of them have new careers as show horses and family pets after people like me nurse them back and retrain them.’’
FOR SOME, A NEW LIFE
As cases in point, there are rescue horses with mounted police units, horses retrained and winning at horse shows, and still others on prison farms through a program begun by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation where inmates are trained for new careers caring for horses when they complete their sentences. Even one of the riderless horses used at funerals at Arlington National Cemetery is a rescue horse.
And that says nothing of the thousands adopted by horse lovers.
So all over the country a lot of people like Kelly Young fight to rescue the ones they can. She made contacts with a few of the middlemen at the killer auctions. Each time she goes to one, they let her buy two horses back for $50 above what the middleman paid. She counts each rescue as a personal victory.
In effect, in those cases she offers a rebuttal to the self-serving killer auctions’ boast of “seven days from stable to (dining) table” with an “out of harm back to the farm.”
The farm is named Lost and Found Horse Rescue. It got its name from the line in “Amazing Grace,” the old hymn, that goes: ‘‘I once was lost, but now am found.’’ It is tucked into the rolling hills just 5 miles from Exit 13 on I-83 in York, Pa. Kelly says there is a lot of religious belief fueling her determination to help these horses cheat certain death.
Nick Zito, who does more than a lot of other trainers when it comes to rescue, supports that notion.
“Go to the Bible,” he says, ‘‘and read Proverbs 24:11:
“ ‘Rescue those who are being led away to death. Indeed, hold back those who are staggering to the slaughter.’ I believe it applies to these horses as well. They are living, breathing creatures. They are the stars of our business at all levels. Without them we are nothing.’’
“People who don’t understand,” Kelly says, “call me a do-gooder. Maybe they’re right. I’d rather do good than sit back and do nothing. I’d rather do good than pretend I don’t see too many owners and trainers and racetracks that would rather keep the killer auctions a dirty secret.”
Or, as Kim Zito says, ‘‘They get dumped at the killer auctions in thoroughbred racing’s version of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ Too many owners and trainers look away.”
TO THE RESCUE
The same woman who offered a sanctuary for Kelly’s donkey began sending her money to buy horses slated for death and ship them to her in Maryland. Then she bought the Pennsylvania farm that now is Kelly’s command post and leased it to her.
At the moment, Kelly has 26 horses, one part-time helper and 10 volunteers at the farm. She can tell you the detailed history of performance, mistreatment and rescue of each animal.
She has rescued thoroughbreds whose lip tattoos have been deliberately blurred to avoid identification. She can tell you about the rescued horse she finally traced to its last owner, whom she called.
“Things happen,” the lady, who was no lady, said. “Don’t bother me. It’s not my problem.” Then she found the breeder, who was appalled, sent a carrier to pick up the horse, reimbursed Kelly and gave the horse a home.
Young has rescued thoroughbreds at the top and the bottom of the pecking order. She speaks about Major Mecke — 85 starts, eight victories, seven shows — $289,622 in purses and then, after finishing five of his last six starts out of the money in cheap claimers, dumped in 2008.
“When they brought him over to the auctioneer, he walked in there, head held, looking as though he were about to say, ‘You should have seen me back in my day. I was the real stuff.’ ”
She rescued the half-brother of Charismatic (1999 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner). She tried him in a horse show and he won it all. “Somebody had already trained him but somebody else dumped him anyway,” Young said. “He’s been adopted by a college kid.’’
She can cite chapter and verse on every horse she saved, but there is one that is special. Her name is Ming Toy. She had run 86 times and won $81,543. Then, at Charles Town , racing in the cheapest race the track had, she clipped heels with another horse and finished well up the track.
“The owner and trainer dumped her,” Young said. “At the sale she was filthy and starving and covered in horse crap. You could actually count her ribs. She was so emaciated they were afraid to show her because she was a walking, breathing ad against every thing they were doing. I got her for nothing. She’s been adopted.’’
A DEEPER NEED
The list goes on . . . the rescues . . . the new careers . . . the lives saved.
But ‘‘now’’ could wind up being sadder than the story of “Black Beauty.”
The woman who bought the farm for Kelly has cancer. Kelly has until July 1 to raise $350,000 — the sale price and a year’s budget. Lost and Found Rescue is a 501(c)(3) corporation. Donations are tax deductible. Just as she has been the angel of those whom she rescued, she needs an angel of her own now — or all of this will end.
Kelly Young knows that this Saturday they will run the Kentucky Derby and she will watch it on television. She knows that in 1986 a long shot named Ferdinand won the Kentucky Derby and paid 17-1. It was the last Derby victory for the jockey, 54-year-old Bill Shoemaker. There was honor and roses for both.
But history and drama mean nothing to the horse killers. In 2002, Ferdinand was sent to a slaughterhouse in Japan for pet food.
Kelly Young knows that there are so many horses still to be saved. She knows that even as they come out of the gate for the Derby on Saturday, there will be killer auctions around the country.
And she still needs an angel by July to find a way to save her farm.
For more information about the tax deductible donations Kelly Young needs to save Lost and Found Horse Rescue Farm, individuals, corporations or trusts may contact her at Lost and Found Horse Rescue Foundation, Inc., 852 Valley Road, York, Pa. 17403. Telephone (717) 428-9701.
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