Charlie at 15 – now half his life free

Today is Charlie’s 15th birthday! He spent the first half of his life as “Charlie’s Quest” in the racing industry. Now this birthday marks half his life free of whips and chains with me.

Foaled at a Kentucky farm on April 11, 2009, Charlie was purpose-bred for racing, with progenitors including Man O’War and Secretariat. For the next 7-1/2 years, his life was controlled by a series of six owners and seven trainers — who ran him, starting at age two years and nine months, in 45 races on twelve tracks in nine states.

Whether those owners and trainers were at the top of the industry, as they were in Charlie’s early racing years, or at the bottom as they were at the end, they used and abused him in ways that belie their claims to love their horses.

Rick Dutrow, a former Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, became Charlie’s second trainer in March 2012. That lasted until January 2013, when Dutrow’s drug and administrative violations were so numerous that he became the rare trainer to be “exiled” from the industry: the New York Racing and Wagering Board revoked his license for 10 years and fined him $50,000, prompting Kentucky and Maryland racing authorities to follow with their own state license revocations.

Charlie then changed hands twice in 2013, with Steve Asmussen — then the second-winningest trainer in North American history — claiming him in July as both owner and trainer. During Charlie’s first weeks at Asmussen’s Saratoga barn, a PETA undercover investigator was onsite for the summer race meet, documenting how the trainer abused his horses with performance-enhancing drugs, electroshock devices and more. PETA’s evidence from that investigation soon prompted the New York State Gaming Commission to conduct its own review, to fine Asmussen for unlawful use of the hypothyroid medication thyroxine, and to implement comprehensive new rules restricting the use of thyroxine and other drugs.

Charlie had placed first or second in half his 2012 races — but was already suffering from leg injuries by that July 2013 date when Asmussen claimed him, and was unable to run as aggressively as his new owner-trainer demanded. Asmussen’s assistant labeled Charlie a “rat” for his disappointing performance — and by December 2014, Asmussen sold him off.

During the next year and a half, Charlie passed through three more owners and trainers, racing punishing schedules at lower-tier tracks.

By early summer 2016, now at Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle Downs, Charlie’s right front fetlock was dramatically enlarged — but his final owner-trainer continued racing him. Thankfully, PETA was monitoring Charlie’s status — and that July, fearing imminent breakdown risk, pulled him from the track and transferred him to a veterinary boarding facility outside Pennsylvania’s state capital of Harrisburg. There, examining vets found Charlie to have “quadrilateral lameness, some of which is very severe,” and which “even with a pampered life as a pasture companion” would show degenerative changes over time. 

When PETA asked me to consider adopting Charlie and providing that pampered life, I immediately said yes. The PETA blog post Who Rescued Whom? tells the story of that time: I was newly widowed, living on a small Virginia farm with two other rescued horses named Henry and Caroline, who my late husband Greg and I had adopted from PETA just two years earlier. I wanted to save Charlie in memory of Greg, who had gone to great lengths to save Henry and Caroline. I also knew that rescuing Charlie would give me the fresh sense of meaning and purpose I sorely needed at the time.

In August 2016, I visited Charlie for the first time at the veterinary facility. Then on September 21, after his health check was complete, Charlie was transported to my Virginia farm. He settled in quickly with Henry and Caroline, and within a week, had established himself as herd leader. With access to several acres of pasture — something racehorses are rarely if ever afforded — he initially ran more than his legs could handle, and experienced periodic bouts of lameness. He soon learned to modulate his movement, however, and for the next six years was surprisingly sound.

In spring 2017 we moved to a new farm in Maryland; then in winter 2021 we all moved again to the Pennsylvania region where Charlie and I had first met. What hasn’t changed, through these three homes and 7-1/2 years, is that Charlie is a retired pasture companion — spending most of his days grazing as horses evolved to do, and running only when he chooses to run.

2022 was a difficult year. That June, we lost Henry horse to illness at age 24, leaving Caroline as Charlie’s sole herd mate. Then in the same month, Charlie’s fragile hooves began to fail, and he was diagnosed with potentially life-threatening founder.

Thankfully, I was able to arrange for Charlie to receive cutting-edge farrier care from Daisy Haven Farm — and today, with the aid of customized glue-on prosthetic front hooves, Charlie is again able to run and graze freely with Caroline on my ten acres of pasture.

Meanwhile, during Charlie’s fifteen years of life, there have been positive systemic developments in the United States for horses used in racing — thanks to years of investigative and advocacy work from PETA and many other horse advocates:

  • The federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was signed into law in December 2020, its first racetrack safety regulations went into effect on July 1, 2022, and its anti-doping enforcement program began on May 22, 2023.
  • The industry is pumping fewer foals into the racing pipeline: the annual North American registered Thoroughbred foal “crop” dropped from 29,612 the year Charlie was born in 2009, to an estimated 17,200 in 2023. 
  • According to the Jockey Club’s “fatalities per thousand starts” metric (for Thoroughbreds only), 2023’s 1.32 figure shows a 34% decrease in fatal racetrack injuries when compared to 2.0 in 2009. At the same time, the media and general public increasingly pay attention to racetrack deaths, and question why the industry allows them to happen.
  • As for racehorses’ post-track lives, though precise statistics are unavailable, we know that fewer of them are being shipped from the US to Canadian and Mexican slaughter plants, while more former racehorses are living full retirement lives thanks to an increase in resources for aftercare.

But still, for thousands of racehorses, change is much too slow:

As for the racehorse owners and trainers? Rick Dutrow, Charlie’s second trainer, completed his ten-year suspension in February 2023 — and by December, industry publications were gushing about his “comeback of the year” overseeing a stable of 57 horses bringing in seven-figure wins, never asking about the well-being of those animals. In August 2023, Steve Asmussen, Charlie’s third owner and fourth trainer, was ordered by the US Department of Labor to pay $205,000 in penalties and reimbursements for violations surrounding the employment of temporary visa workers at his stables — “the fourth instance in recent years Asmussen Stables has been instructed to compensate workers following a Wage and Hour Division inquiry.”

It has long been an open secret that the top earners in horse racing are also some of the top rule-breakers and law-breakers. The new federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority may ultimately break this culture — but it remains unclear how much impact it will have, and how soon.

So while I continue to provide Charlie the care and freedom he richly deserves, I also continue to devote much of my energy and resources to the broader cause of ending horse racing industry abuses, and of ultimately shutting down the industry altogether.

Leave a Comment