You can’t do this kind of work without being faced with your fair share of rescue cases. TPR tries to rescue horses whenever possible, but we specialize in the placement of retiring racehorses. Our hope is for the horse to avoid needing to be rescued at all by providing options to those needing to rehome their horses – for whatever reason. We actively aid in their placement by spreading the word, reaching out to contacts and promoting each horse. We help through Assisted Placement when funding is limited – which is all too often. Please take some time to read about some of our rescue success stories.
TPR is dedicated to the education of horsemen so they can make solid choices when it comes to the retirement and placement of their horses. Topics of special importance are anti-slaughter issues, including the horrible conditions at auctions and reliable information for those wishing to acquire a horse off the track. What follows is Anne Russek’s account of the suffering horses go through when put into the slaughter pipeline. Thoroughbred Placement Resources supported Anne after this and placed five of the Sugarcreek Six horses that she was able to save.
No Day Off
survived and written by Anne Russek
The following is my account of the behind the scene events that contributed to the HBO documentary” Hidden Horses.” The following individuals will be mentioned in this story as they played vital roles in the production as it pertained to the racehorses. Gail Vacca, Becky Care, and Diana McClure are members of the racing industry, without whose help the Sugarcreek segment would not have been possible. I am sure that there are no words I can write that will adequately convey to the rest of you how supportive and involved these three women were. Hopefully, by the end of the story, you will see them for the unique and caring individuals that they are. I am blessed to have them as my friends.
I had previously written about events that occurred at the Sugarcreek Auction in Ohio on April 11 of this year. At that time, because of a scheduling conflict with HBO, six thoroughbreds and one pony were rescued from the auction. ( That story is on many horse sites referred to as “‘How Luck and a Village Saved the Sugarcreek Six”).
After that rescue, an assistant producer from HBO, Ryan Goldberg, contacted me to ask if I would be interested in assisting in an undercover documentary depicting the chain of events that allows for Thoroughbreds to go from the racetrack to the auctions that then ship to slaughter. I was more than willing to assist in this production.
I have been involved in racing for over thirty years. I love horses, and I love racing. Five years ago I became aware of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. It was at that time I first became aware of how many thousands of Thoroughbreds go to slaughter every year. This was absolutely unacceptable to me, and I committed myself to helping to end horse slaughter in this country.
Since this practice of disposing of racehorses happens at every track across the country, we first needed to decide which track to video. I told Ryan that for several years, a young girl named Becky Care, who worked as a groom at Mountaineer Racetrack, had been reporting to me about the terrible conditions there. Mountaineer is located within an hours drive of the Sugarcreek Auction. This allows for owners and trainers to conveniently dispose of racehorses on a weekly basis. On several occasions, I had helped Becky rescue some of these horses, but it truly was a drop in the bucket. The last horse we rescued, Almighty Above, was such an upsetting experience for Becky that she quit her job as a groom and took a job in one of the restaurants at the Mountaineer Casino.
I called Becky and asked her if it was still” business as usual “at the track. Becky assured me that things had only gotten worse. The track has a policy that any horse who does not finish first through fourth in their last five races, must be removed from the stable area within five days of that last race. Since most of the trainers at Mountaineer do not have farms and do not make money from their training endeavors, sending horses to Sugarcreek is an acceptable option for disposal. There are actually designated pick up days, Mondays and Thursdays, at which time either Dick Rudibaugh or Wilson Langley will bring their trailers into the stable area to get the horses. For years, Dick Rudibaugh was the main “meat man”, but after suffering a heart attack, Rudibaugh has slowed down a little and word on the backside is that Langley would like to take over.
HBO explained to me that it was imperative we could chronicle specific Thoroughbreds being loaded at Mountaineer Park, transported to Sugarcreek, run through the auction, purchased by known kill buyers, and then being loaded onto the trailers bound for either Canada or Mexico. The only way to identify that the Thoroughbreds were the same ones from the track to the auction was through their tattoo numbers.
Ryan explained to me that I would have to track the horses once they arrived at the auction. I assured him I could do this, but I would need Becky to help me. I called Becky and asked her if she was interested in the project. I told her I understood that there could be ramifications for her if she chose to participate because , unlike me, she lived there. Becky never hesitated for a moment. Although Becky acknowledged that if Mountaineer found out she had helped, she would likely lose her job, she understood that this was a chance to show the entire country the abuse and horror these horses endure. Becky was totally on board.
When I called Ryan back to tell him we were set to go, he dropped the bombshell. I was told that the legal department of HBO had indicated that there could not be any rescue of any of the horses filmed. It was explained to me that a rescue could be perceived as a staged event, and that those people who profited from horse slaughter, would only dismiss the documentary as such. I was devastated and emotionally distraught. How could I possibly participate in a documentary knowing that the horses I helped identify would go to slaughter?
I appealed to the HBO producers to rewrite their story.” Wouldn’t it be so much better for people to know the horses were saved?” I asked. “Once we showed that the horses had been purchased by a kill buyer, wouldn’t that prove our point?”. I presented my case over and over, using every angle I could think of to change the producers mind, but the HBO legal counsel would not/could not budge. Since the documentary was undercover, I was not at liberty to call my friends and ask their advice. I realized for the first time in my life that I was not special. I was not strong enough or smart enough to figure out a way to get my way. I was going to have to compromise my integrity to prove a point. For years I have been telling anyone who would listen that there is nothing legal I won’t do to help stop horse slaughter. I never could have imagined that I would have to facilitate slaughter to help end it. I wear my shame every day.
It was decided that we would meet at Mountaineer Racetrack on Thursday, April 17. I left my home in Virginia at 2 AM Wednesday morning. I was better prepared for the auction having been there the week before. This time I brought my own halter and a tape recorder in case we couldn’t write down the tattoo numbers. I also brought a thermometer because I wanted to take the temperature of any horses that looked sick. At the time, I actually thought if I could show that certain horses were too sick to travel, they would not be sent to slaughter. Driving for hours in the early morning darkness, I was alone with my thoughts. I was aware that this was no dress rehearsal. Everything depended on all the players maintaining their usual routine. What if Rudibaugh was sick? What if HBO wasn’t discreet? What if I could not get to see the sign out sheet for the horses as I had the week before? My mind was overwhelmed with details. As the morning sun began to appear, I determined to remain optimistic.
I arrived at Mountaineer Park around 8:30 A.M. I pulled into an employee parking lot that sits between the stable area and the racetrack. Dick Rudibaugh’s truck and stock trailer were parked alongside the fence, where he always parks before going into the backside to pick up horses. At least I knew I was on time. I called Ryan on my cell phone and he told me where to meet him. Ryan and the camera person, Sarah, were by the track watching horses gallop. Since I knew the pick up procedure from the week before, Sarah decided she would wait by the stable gate and follow Rudibaugh as he drove through the stable area, and Ryan and I would wander the barn area following Rudibaugh from a different direction. The stable area at Mountaineer has very poor visual access from barn to barn. The barns are very long and are situated parallel to each other alongside a slight hill. You can only see down alleyways between each barn, we had to keep track of each other via our phones.
Sarah called to tell us that Rudibaugh had pulled into the stable area and was heading towards his first barn. Sarah was able to film two men ,and Rudibaugh ,attempting to load a bay filly onto the trailer. The filly was absolutely refusing to get on the metal stock-trailer. They had put a lip chain on her and were very aggressive, shanking her repeatedly.
Sarah heard the men tell Rudibaugh he needed to move the trailer to another spot so that the step up was more level. Rudibaugh said he knew a spot closer to the stable gate and they should meet him there. Sarah and I followed Rudibaugh and once he had parked the trailer, the two men walked the filly to the new loading spot. Once again, the filly would not load. Sarah was standing almost next to the one man, Nino Pizzuro. He started to tell Sarah that the filly did not want to race, and that she was going to a farm or a sale. Nino even told Sarah the mares name, NO DAY OFF.
Nino and his friend spent quite a while trying to force the filly onto the trailer, continuing to shank her mercilessly for her refusal. I had to keep walking away to keep myself from interfering. It was impossible not to keep thinking that somehow she knew getting on that trailer was the wrong thing to do. Finally, they backed the filly onto the trailer. Rudibaugh got back in his truck, drove to the stable gate, signed the horse out ,and left. Sarah walked over to where I was sitting and sat down beside me. I asked her if she had gotten everything and she said yes. I told her that was one of the most unprofessional and abusive examples of loading a horse I had ever witnessed. I couldn’t keep from quietly crying, I told Sarah I felt very guilty, she agreed it was a very hard situation.
Sarah went to her car to check out the footage and Ryan called Gail to tell her the name of the horse so that Gail could identify her tattoo number. I went to see a trainer I knew who was stabled there. I was carrying my digital camera that I had brought along for no particular reason. As I walked past the track security office, a guard came out the door and hollered at me ,”hey, no cameras allowed back here”. I told him I only had it to take some pictures of my friends horses. The guard told me I must take it to my car immediately or I would be asked to leave the stable area. I asked him what the problem was, and said surely owners come to the track to take pictures of their horses. He told me that Rosemary Williams, the Mountaineer general manager, had prohibited cameras on the backside and I needed to get permission from her. I have been on the racetrack over thirty years and I have never heard of such a stupid rule. Another trainer who was passing by and overheard the guard, made the sarcastic comment that the reason Williams didn’t want people taking pictures was because she was afraid that someone would steal the architectural designs for the barns. Considering that Mountaineer Park is one of the most debilitated barn areas I have ever seen, his remark was quite funny.
Gail called back with No Day Off’s tattoo number, H19563, and told us that the filly had just raced the previous Saturday and had been pulled up during the race. She was owned and trained by Ricardo Hernandez. We did not know at that time that Nino was not Ricardo.
Ryan had to drive Sarah to the airport as she was returning to New York and so I told Ryan I would meet him early the next morning at Sugarcreek. I had the rest of the day to drive to Ohio to my motel and so I decided to drive by Rudibaugh’s farm to see if I could find No Day Off. About that time I met up with Becky who told me she had trouble getting off from work and did not think she could get to Sugarcreek before 2 P.M. the next day. I knew that would be a big problem, you definitely need two people to identify the horses. One person to hold the horses head, and the other to read the tattoo. I called Gail and told her the problem. Gail was worried also and said she would call a few people she knew who had rescued horses from Sugarcreek to see if they could meet me on Friday to help. I told Becky not to worry, something would work out, although at the time I wasn’t sure what.
I did drive past Rudibaugh’s house but there were no horses in sight. By the time I got there, he had already unhooked his trailer but I could only see his truck from the road. I was quite certain that No Day Off was not there. I actually had a knot in my stomach because I was worried that Rudibaugh was going to leave her on the stock trailer all night because she had been so difficult to load.
I then drove to Leroy Bakers farm because it is on the way to Sugarcreek. In fact, Bakers farm is about thirteen miles from Rudibaugh’s. There were several houses on either side of the road that must have been relatives of Bakers because each driveway had either a truck or a semi in it with the Sugarcreek Auction logo on the side. There was a barn, but it was too far off the road for me to see into, but I suspected that No Day Off and other horses could be in there. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if she was in that barn, she was without hay or water. I was starting to realize that from the time she had left Mountaineer that morning, her journey to slaughter would be a constant downward spiral. Everything happening to her now would be totally foreign to her, her entire routine was disrupted, there would be no kindness, only varying degrees of brutality. My own thoughts were turning into despair.
I was almost to Sugarcreek when Gail called. She told me that my good friend, Diana McClure was going to fly into Akron from Virginia to help me on Friday. I expressed concern that Diana was leaving her training farm operation at the drop of a hat to come be with me. Gail said there was no way they were going to let me do this alone. I cannot begin to convey the wave of relief that overcame me. I did not want to endure this experience by myself, I was so very thankful that these two friends had sensed my vulnerability. I picked Diana up late Thursday night and we checked into a hotel and made our plans for the next morning.
We arrived at the auction around 9 AM Friday morning. Besides the Amish employees, we were one of the first ones there. I showed Diana how to navigate the auction and the pen areas, and she was quick to notice the very thin and sick horses that were already there.
We found a pen of horses that we knew were Standardbreds and we decided to record their tattoo numbers. Diana was quick to catch on that the horses are in constant motion to protect themselves from getting kicked. During the day, as the pens fill up, the horses push and bump each other to find safety. Diana commented that she did not understand why there were so many horses in very good shape at the auction. It made no sense why people would think this auction would be a good venue to re market their horses.
As we walked down an aisleway, I noticed a large bottle of Banamine (painkiller) sitting on a ledge behind a post. There was a syringe stuck into the top of the bottle. Anyone could have used this medication for any purpose. We went to the unloading area and watched the horses coming in. Trailer after trailer pulled up. The usual kill dealers were there, Ramey, (KY) Bauer,( OH)& Fisher(PA).
The same veterinarian from the previous week, Melissa Reddick, was drawing blood for coggins testing. As usual, horses with halters were held for this procedure. Horses without halters were run down chutes, individually singled out by being beaten with sticks, pinned between a wooden gate and the wall, slapped and kicked if they moved a muscle, while Reddick climbed up the side of the gate and reached over to stick the needle into the vein and draw blood. This method is repeated over and over throughout the day. There is never any attempt by Dr. Reddick to record tattoo numbers, even on those horses that come directly from the racetracks.
Diana and I became very busy trying to follow the groups of horses as they were herded into different pens. The larger pens were filling up very quickly and in one such pen Diana spotted a severely injured horse that looked like a thoroughbred. We climbed into the pen and it was apparent that the horse had a broken hock. He was unable to bear any weight on the leg, and Diana attempted to move him to a corner of the pen where he would be less likely to be kicked by others, but he was unable to move because the horses were packed so tightly together.
We pulled his tattoo, he was a Standardbred, R9428. I told Diana to go tell Dr. Reddick that the horse was in trouble. I told Diana to be sure and tell Reddick that she (Diana) is a Thoroughbred trainer who can identify a horse with a broken leg when she sees one. Diana went to Reddick who was back at the unloading area and reported the horse. Dr. Reddick told Diana it was not her (Reddick’s) problem. She told Diana that since the horse was still owned privately, only the owner of the horse could authorize her to treat the horse. Since the horse was in a pen with horses that had been dropped off, it was highly unlikely the owner was presently at the auction. Diana went to the office with the horses hip number#81, and asked them to tell her the name of the owner. The lady in the office said she was too busy and would look later if she had time.
Diana returned to Dr. Reddick and again implored her to please come look at the horse. Dr. Reddick said if Diana was that concerned, she should ask one of the Amish to move the horse to a private pen. Diana approached not one, but several of the Amish to ask them to help her. Aside from looking at her as if she had three heads, they did nothing. Diana was starting to realize the hell hole she was in.
Diana came back to me and we discussed our limited options. The injured horse was at the back of the crowded pen, farthest from the gate. He could not walk, so Diana climbed back into the pen and herded the more aggressive horses away from him. For a few minutes I was horrified that Diana was going to get kicked. Horses were pushing and shoving, biting each other, kicking, squealing, all in an attempt to get away from the aggressive horses. I grabbed Diana by her shirt collar and helped pull her back up out of the pen.
About this time Ryan called us on his cell and told us a trailer with Thoroughbreds had just pulled in. We watched as they were run off the trailer with sticks and into an alleyway with gates at each end. Diana and I sprang into action to get tattoos.
Using the halter I had brought with me we developed a system whereby I would hold the horses and hold back their lips, Diana would read the number, then she would hold the horse while I wrote down the number, and then she would reread the number back to me for clarification. The difficulty lie in the fact that there was so much commotion all around us. Not to mention, the Amish knew we were up to something, so they continued to keep the horses moving from one end of the aisleway to the other.
Most of these horses, under ordinary circumstances, would stand very quietly while we handled them. The problem is that from the time the Thoroughbreds leave the track, everyone who handles them uses such abusive force during the auction process, they instinctively revert to their flight instincts. This can be said for any horse at this auction. In a very short time, people have become predators to these horses. The constant yelling, hitting and kicking these horses endure makes it very difficult for anyone to handle them once they are at Sugarcreek.
We began to notice that all the Thoroughbreds were kept in pens closest to the auction ring. This should have made things easier except that the Amish kept moving them from pen to pen. At one point, five or six thoroughbreds came running at us, slipping and sliding on the concrete floor, with their halters on. The halters actually had the horses names on them, Point of Attack and Timbers Prospect. How in the world does a trainer take the time to have a horses name embroidered on a halter, only to send that horse to slaughter?
Diana and I frantically tried to quiet them down and read their tattoos. As I would hold one of them, the Amish would try and take the halter off before we could read the tattoo. I would ask them to wait, but they acted as if they couldn’t hear me. We continued to record tattoos in spite of the Amish. I was constantly asking God to help us, especially with the horses that were reluctant to let us hold their heads and flip their lips.
Sometimes Diana could not make out a letter or a number, and we would have to try again and again. One horse in particular, had an unreadable tattoo. Every time we had a chance, we kept going back to that horse to try again. We never did get it right, he was our only failure.
Around noon, five thoroughbreds were trailered in with Jim Snodgrass from Thistledown Racetrack. He actually told us personal traits about some of the horses, and indicated he hoped we would purchase them privately. At first we thought Snodgrass might have an ounce of redeemable character, but when he proceeded to pull the halters off the horses, while we were trying to get their tattoos, we realized he was as bad as a kill buyer, because he acknowledged how awful this place was and still continued to bring horses here week after week.
Just before the start of the horse sale at 1 PM, we still had not found No Day Off. I was having an anxiety attack from hell. I kept thinking that somehow Baker had found out about us being at the racetrack the day before, and had called his son and told him not to bring any horses from Mountaineer Park to the auction. Diana and I had recorded the tattoos of over 34 Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds.
I called Gail and told her my fear. Gail suggested that we must have missed her, or that Bakers son was running late. All I knew was that the clock was ticking and without No Day Off, there would be no HBO documentary.
Diana told me that she was going to go into the auction and record the sale prices on the hip numbers we had tattoos on. I told her to go ahead, I was going to sit at the unloading area and wait for No Day Off. I was at my wits end, where the hell was she? I begged God to help me. I started to leaf through the list of tattoo numbers we had gotten, page after page. I kept staring at the number Gail had given us for No Day Off, H19563 . I flipped a page and saw the number M19563. “Wait a minute” I thought to myself,” what are the chances that two thoroughbreds would have the same numbers with a different letter?” I then realized that No Day Off was already at Sugarcreek and we knew her hip number, 481!
I leapt to my feet and raced to the pens. I called Diana on my cell and told her that No Day Off was hip #481 and we had to find her. Diana answered me back that she had just watched #481 go through the ring and sell to kill buyer, Fred Bauer. I called Ryan and told him we knew that No Day Off was here. Diana met me and we asked an employee where the Bauer pen was. We went to a pen with about twenty horses in it. Most of them were Thoroughbreds we had already identified, and then we saw her, #481.
We walked in and quietly walked up to her. I held out a handful of hay and she walked over. Diana slipped the grooming halter over her head and we read her tattoo. H19563. Diana immediately said she remembered reading this tattoo earlier because the filly’s gums were cut from the lip chain the day before. That was why Diana had first read the H as a M. I told Diana to look at it again, and then we led her over to the camerawoman so that she could video the tattoo. We had our documentary.
And then, in an instant, reality sunk in. No Day Off was just standing there. Diana and I were petting her and crying our eyes out. We could not save her. She stood there waiting for us to take her out of that horrible place, and the best we could do was to lead her over to the hay manger so that she could eat hay before she was loaded up for the trip to the slaughterhouse in Canada.
Diana and I went back up on the catwalk and watched the sales horses being run into the different kill buyer pens. It was at this time Diana noticed Hip #81, the horse with the broken hock ,standing in a pen of horses that Baker had bought. Diana couldn’t believe they had run the horse through the auction in that condition. Diana saw Dr. Reddick standing on the catwalk. She went over to Reddick and asked her to please come look at #81. Dr. Reddick tried to ignore Diana but Diana insisted that Reddick come look at the horse.
From a distance of over twenty feet, Dr. Reddick told Diana that as far as she was concerned, the horse was weight-bearing and therefore, Reddick saw no reason the horse could not be transported. Diana told Dr. Reddick that she was absolutely wrong, and that the horse was non weight-bearing. Dr. Reddick ended the conversation by telling Diana that Diana was entitled to her opinion.
About this time Becky arrived and I told her what had been happening. Becky told me she was going to try and buy one of the ponies or horses that was in such poor shape they would never survive the trip to slaughter. We walked to the back pen where the worst horses were kept and we saw a chestnut mare lying on the ground. We went into the pen and we saw that she was dying. Her head was resting on the bottom rung of the gate, and her legs were stretched out in front of her. She was barely breathing. She was lying on a manure covered floor, surrounded by horses destined for slaughter.
Once again we approached Dr. Reddick and asked her to intervene. Once again she advised us it was not her job.
I went back to the pen where No Day Off was. Diana and I watched as each horse was let out of the pen and briefly haltered while a farrier removed the shoes from the Thoroughbreds. This is a federal regulation requirement for all horses being transported to slaughter. It is difficult to explain how distressing this is to watch.
At this point I had to leave the auction. Diana had far more courage than me. She stayed with the camera crew to video the horses being loaded onto the trailers. Diana watched as No Day Off slipped and crashed to the ground before being loaded onto a trailer bound for the Canadian slaughterhouse. The cameras continued rolling as the trailers pulled out of the Sugarcreek parking lot.
Later, I ventured back into the auction to find out if Becky had purchased any horses. I found her in a state of complete distress. While waiting for Leroy Baker to give her a price on one of the debilitated horses, she had witnessed him attempting to lift the dying chestnut horse with a front end loader. The horse was unable to stand, and Baker finally gave up. Unfortunately, this despicable atrocity is not on video.
Five years ago I read the story of how a Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand, was slaughtered for human consumption. No Day Off was not a Derby winner. No Day Off was one of the thousands of racehorses that nobody ever remembers.
I will remember No Day Off forever. I see her face every day. I see her eyes every day looking deep into my soul asking me to take her home. I wake up every day remembering the sacrifice she made for all Thoroughbreds and horses so that Americans would unite together and force our legislators to get off their procrastinating soap boxes and pass the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.
Many of you may despise me for not rescuing No Day Off. But if you do not contact your Congressmen and Senators on her behalf, you share in my complicity. No Day Off was sacrificed in an attempt to show Americans that every aspect of the horse slaughter industry is cruel, abusive, and minimal regulations are not enforced.
The incomprehensible slaughter of Thoroughbred champion, Ferdinand, sparked the effort to ban horse slaughter in the United States. I pray that the equally incomprehensible and unnecessary slaughter of No Day Off, will be the catalyst to finally end the unconscionable slaughter of American horses.