Seven years ago, on September 21, 2016, Charlie arrived at the Virginia farm I then shared with two other horses plus my dogs and cats.
Known in the racing world as Charlie’s Quest, he was descended from Secretariat among other famous names – but his pedigree and his own solid early earnings record had not protected him from multiple forms of abuse.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had rescued Charlie after his 45th “career” race at Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle Downs that July, when he was seven years old, and invited me to adopt him. I immediately agreed.
“Charlie’s Quest has quadrilateral lameness,” his first examining vet wrote, “some very severe, progressive, and likely painful. He is most likely going to be unusable as a companion riding horse. Even with a pampered life as a pasture companion, he will continue to have degenerative changes that will worsen over time.”
But Charlie was also, in the vet’s words, both “exuberant” and “stoic.” I had never intended to ride him, and I was determined to do whatever it took to give him the pampered life he deserved.
Fast forward to today, and Charlie has proved overall to be more resilient than expected, thriving in his new life with fellow PETA rescue horse Caroline — with little more than routine veterinary care, and with weather-dependent freedom to move between barn and pasture at whatever speed he wishes. Hoof care is the one area so far where Charlie has come to need specialized services, as his delicate and overtaxed natural hooves have begun to give out in recent years.
Fortunately, with the benefit of prosthetic front hooves applied by Daisy Haven Farm, in 2023 Charlie has appeared sounder than ever — and he is still able to break into an impressive gallop when he chooses to do so.
I provide for Charlie’s care with my personal resources — but his story has also inspired my support, through the Gregory J. Reiter Memorial Fund, for PETA’s campaign to end numerous horse racing industry abuses.
PETA is currently campaigning for a 12-point plan to save race horses — and the first point in that plan is to ban medications two weeks before a race, with emphasis on injury-masking and performance-enhancing drugs. This campaign grew out of PETA’s 2013 undercover investigation of Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who was the fourth of Charlie’s seven consecutive racing industry owners and trainers.
That PETA probe, which the New York State Gaming Commission followed with its own comprehensive investigation, revealed that nearly every horse in Asmussen’s stable was administered thyroxine, a prescription drug intended to treat thyroid disorders—not because the horses suffered from thyroid problems, but to speed up their metabolism in an attempt to make them run faster. The same investigation also produced evidence that in the run-up to an August 2013 Saratoga race, Asmussen’s assistant trainer knew Charlie to have a significant leg injury, but nevertheless attempted — mercifully without success — to enter Charlie in that race by masking his injury with both a local injection and systemic anti-inflammatory medications.
These PETA and New York State investigations led, in turn, to a 2015 fine on Asmussen, and adoption of stricter state anti-doping and medical rules in 2018 — and contributed to passage of the federal Horseracing Safety and Integrity Act of 2020.
The second point in PETA’s plan is to allow horses who are injured or sore sufficient time to recuperate before they are trained or raced. This campaign was inspired in part by Charlie’s experience in his final weeks on the track during June-July 2016, under his seventh and final owner and trainer — when he was raced three times in 32 days, despite his visibly inflamed right front fetlock, and despite finishing 7th in each race. PETA had been following Charlie’s journey ever since the 2013 Asmussen investigation — and with evidence that 90% of horses who suffer catastrophic breakdowns have preexisting injuries at the site of the bone break, stepped in to rescue him at that point. PETA also lodged a complaint with the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission, calling for an investigation into how state veterinarians and stewards at Presque Isle Downs apparently cleared Charlie to race despite his obvious injury.
PETA is also campaigning for an end to public subsidies of the New York State horse racing industry, which total hundreds of millions of dollars annually. These subsidies, according to polls, are opposed by 83% of New York State residents, as they siphon money away from education and other vital human services. The most recent focus of this campaign is a lawsuit on behalf of New York residents, to block a $455 million dollar state loan for rebuilding the Belmont Park racetrack, on the grounds that public loans to private entities violate the state constitution. This campaign, too, ties partly back to Charlie’s experience — as subsidies help incentivize owners to race injured horses, by pumping so much money into the industry that even last-place finishers win their owners a few hundred dollars per race.
I am proud to have given Charlie the comfortable “retirement” he so richly deserves, and hope there will be many more adoption anniversaries to celebrate. I know most race horses do not fare so well, however — and I look forward to continued work with PETA and other horse advocates to save many more like Charlie!
See also: Who Rescued Whom? Grab a Tissue Before Reading This Horse Rescue Story (PETA blog, December 15, 2016)