On a small ranch in the desert community of Winchester, Calif., some retired athletes are savoring their late-afternoon meal. In fact, their faces are submerged in it. "Hello, boys," croons a small woman holding a brown paper bag. "Anybody need anything?" Only one of the boys, Perry Cabin, bothers to look up, and then merely to cast a disdainful look in her direction before plunging back into his dinner. The woman chuckles, takes a carrot from the bag and drops it into Perry's food. "Ah, well," she says cheerfully. "It's O.K. for them to be a little full of themselves. They've earned it."
These former athletes, 13 old geldings living in three rows of outdoor stalls at the California Equine Retirement Foundation (CERF), are what horse people like to call "hard knockers." Year after year these old warriors battled against younger, healthier horses until age and injuries forced them into retirement.
In the seven years since it was founded by Grace Belcuore, a retired schoolteacher, CERF has not only provided a sanctuary for these hard knockers but has also found homes for more than 100 former racehorses. At present the ranch boards 29 thoroughbreds. Some are waiting to be adopted, others are recuperating from injuries or exhaustion. The geldings, most of whom have arthritis because of the many injuries they suffered during their racing careers, are not eligible for adoption. "I wouldn't want someone to get a wild hair and think one of these guys could make a comeback," Belcuore says.
Ideally the horses will have a home for the rest of their lives. But their den mother is agonizing over how much longer she can keep the ranch going. With an annual operating cost of around $65,000, and only $21,000 in the bank, CERF's future looks bleak. Belcuore (whose surname, incidentally, means "beautiful heart" in Italian) has already put $80,000 of her own money into the ranch and has been refused money by people who are reaping millions from the sport. "We're desperate," says Belcuore, 66, of the foundation's fund-raising efforts. "I just can't believe a sport with this much money can't help out the very animals it's exploiting."
Amid the ongoing controversy concerning the treatment of racehorses, few would suggest that racetracks are a paradise for the animals. Most seem to enjoy running, but probably not with someone flogging them with a crop, and probably not on days when they are sick or sore or not in the mood. Once they have been retired, the better colts and mares are sent to breeding farms, but what about the geldings? The lucky ones go on to second careers as pleasure ponies, but most of them end up at slaughterhouses.
CERF was created with these horses in mind. And though its founder was no more than a casual $2 bettor when she decided to open the ranch, she recognized the one quality that breeders all over the world try to propagate: heart. "It's the one thing that kept them going," Belcuore says of her charges, none of whom would be around without CERF. "None of them deserve to go to the killers, not after what they gave to racing."
Most weekends Belcuore will give guided tours of her ranch to interested individuals or groups, introducing them to such stalwarts as Putting, a winner of graded stakes races in both France and the U.S. Putting earned more than $860,144 in seven years of racing but ended his career as a $6,000 claimer in Northern California. Other retirees include One-Eyed Romeo, Pair of Aces, Quiet Boy, Right on Red and Pettrax, all winners of $100,000 or more during their careers. But Belcuore's pet is 17-year-old Perry Cabin, a gallant, one-eyed bay who earned $348,223 in 111 starts. "There'll never be another Perry," Belcuore says with pride. "He's sort of the wise old man of the bunch."
Belcuore, an outspoken woman with dark, flashing eyes, moved to the Los Angeles area from Boston in 1956. She taught in the public school system until her retirement in the late 1970s. It was then that she began going to races with friends. "I liked handicapping," she says. "I was good at it."
In 1985, Belcuore became concerned by the attempt to return 11-year-old John Henry, who had been retired to a Kentucky pasture, to the track. John's trainer, Ron McAnally, permitted Belcuore to hang around his barn at Hollywood Park, and she fed the charismatic gelding carrots and apples and learned about the business.
Belcuore began to notice that certain horses would disappear suddenly from other barns. "A trainer would tell an owner that his horse had broken down or couldn't run anymore, and the owner would tell the trainer to take care of it," Belcuore says matter-of-factly.
A year later she decided there had to be a place for old geldings who weren't as accomplished as John Henry (who by then had been officially retired and bedded down at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington) but who had distinguished themselves on the track. Belcuore came up with CERF and had it incorporated as a nonprofit foundation in 1987.
She then sent 6,000 letters to horsemen, asking for donations of money and horses. The money trickled in slowly, but within a few weeks she acquired her first horse, Pecos Pippin. A few months later she had a handful of horses that she boarded in temporary facilities.
Belcuore borrowed money to purchase five acres of land in Winchester, and in 1988 she sold her house in Los Angeles to buy five more acres. The ranch consists of 27 paddocks, two houses and a barn. Belcuore and her cousin, Jo Italiano, run the foundation from one of the houses. Belcuore also employs two full-time workers, and the ranch is equipped not only for boarding but also to service horses during layups and to break yearlings.
These days, the only organization providing CERF any real financial help is the Oak Tree Racing Association at Santa Anita, which gives the foundation $5,000 a year. (The same organization has contributed $1 million annually to the UC Davis Veterinary School for each of the past five years; it cut back to $750,000 for 1994.) Another organization, Hollywood Park Charities, donated $2,500 to the foundation last year but turned down CERF's request for funds this year. Santa Anita's and Del Mar's charities, which like Hollywood Park's aid various individual philanthropies of their choice, have turned down CERF every year since its inception.
Last year was especially trying for Belcuore. In April she sent 200 letters to owners and breeders in an attempt to get help. She received two donations of $5,000, one from Hollywood Park vice president Warren Williamson and another from owner and breeder W.R. Hahn.
Ed Friendly, a former television producer and the president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, says that while he himself has donated a modest amount to the foundation, his organization cannot do the same. "We feel it's each owner's responsibility to take care of his own horse after retirement," Friendly says, echoing the attitude of many horse people. "It's not right to expect owners to take care of someone else's horse. I don't ask people to take care of my kids or my dogs."
William Murray, a writer for The New Yorker who has chronicled Belcuore's struggle in his 1992 book The Wrong Horse, disagrees with Friendly. "It's a disgrace to the industry that she has to go around, hat in hand, and beg for money," he says. "There are at least 100 individuals or organizations in this business who could easily help her. For a sport that's so image conscious, it's inexcusable."
Belcuore talks with envy of the support given by New York State and New York tracks to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation at the Wallkill Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Some 50 retired racehorses are fed and groomed by inmates, thus providing a service to both man and beast. The state-operated organization raised more than $250,000 last year by auctioning off stallion shares.
Belcuore dreads the day she will have to turn away a horse. But she fears it is approaching. "I don't like to give voice to it, but I've come to realize that we may have to fold soon," she says. "How much longer can we go on with no money? I just can't bear the thought of anything happening to my boys."
She laughs as a horse nuzzles her neck. "I bet on every one of these guys when they ran," she says. "I screamed for them all then. I can't stop now."
Stephanie Diaz recently won an Eclipse Award for her writing on thoroughbred racing.