It seems fitting that my horse Charlie marks today’s twelfth birthday at our new home in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania — because just 30 miles from here, outside the state capital of Harrisburg, was the place we met in August 2016.
Back then, I was living on a Virginia farmette with two other horses named Henry and Caroline, PETA rescues Greg and I had adopted together in June 2014. PETA had just rescued “Charlie’s Quest” after a July 2016 race at Presque Isle Downs & Casino in Erie, and was boarding him temporarily at an equine veterinary facility. I had agreed in principle to adopt Charlie — but wanted to make sure his temperament was such that I’d be able to handle him. Well-mannered he was indeed — though when I walked him for the first time, from his stall to the facility’s turnout area, he was far less interested in me than in eating that grass!
After a month of evaluation and rehabilitation, Charlie came to my Virginia farm on September 21, 2016 — quickly making himself at home with Henry and Caroline, and establishing himself as the herd leader. We moved to a Maryland farm in March 2017, and then to our new Pennsylvania home this January.
Meanwhile, PETA filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania State Racing Commission — calling on the Commission to investigate how the Presque Isle Downs track veterinarian cleared Charlie’s Quest to race three times in approximately thirty days, despite two separate veterinary exams within one month of his last race determining that he suffered from moderate to severe lameness in all four limbs. The complaint called further for the Pennsylvania State Racing Commission to take all appropriate actions to ensure that injured horses are never forced to run.
Horses can live well into their 30s — but as a Thoroughbred race horse, Charlie is lucky to have made it to age twelve. Of the North American registered foal “crop” of 20,000 per year, hundreds die on racetracks, while thousands are shipped outside the US each year — including to Mexico, Canada, Japan, and South Korea – where they are slaughtered for meat. (See PETA: The Horseracing Industry: Drugs, Deception and Death and USA Today, Oct. 31, 2019: Horses go from racetracks to slaughterhouses: ‘It’s just a job to me’)
Charlie was clearly at risk of a fatal breakdown in his final three races at Presque Isle Downs, finishing seventh in each one, and with fetlocks visibly inflamed. He had raced for more than four years on a dozen tracks across the eastern half of the US — including Parx just outside Philadelphia, where the Inquirer reports that 704 horses have died since 2010. Equine vets determined that “even with a pampered life as a pasture companion he will continue to have degenerative changes that will worsen over time due to the initial injuries and wear and tear that he has previously incurred.” For now, however, he is indeed living a pampered life, spending his days grazing with Henry and Caroline on ten acres of pasture, walking comfortably, and racing only on his terms — still outrunning the other two.
Meanwhile, as the public becomes increasingly aware of the magnitude of horse suffering and death in racing, and the billion-dollar taxpayer subsidies US states have lavished on the industry, calls for radical reform or an outright ban are building. The federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was signed into law in December 2020, and must take effect no later than July 1, 2022. At the same time, states including New York and Pennsylvania have seen growing movements to redirect hundreds of millions in annual public subsidies from horse racing to education and human services. Charlie’s story, and PETA’s years of international investigation and advocacy which the Greg Fund supports, have played a central role in beginning to break the cycle of Thoroughbred horses being brought into the world to suffer and die.