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Rural Missouri Magazine

A better finish to the race

Zac March and Robin Hurst provide rescue
and retirement to damaged thoroughbreds

by Bob McEowen

Of all the former race horses at Zac March and Robin Hurst’s Out 2 Pasture farm near Jamestown, “Twoey,” an 11-year-old chocolate brown thoroughbred, is the oldest and one of the more remarkable.

Two years ago Two Links Back, as the horse is formally called, was winning money at racetracks in New York and New Jersey. A photo from the time shows Twoey’s owner, beaming with pride, posing with the horse in the winner’s circle. A week after the photo was taken tragedy struck.

Zac March and Robin Hurst care for the leg of a retired thoroughbred race horse on their farm near Jamestown. The two University of Missouri professors have joined a national network of thoroughbred rescue farms.

The horse broke his knee. His long racing career was over. But rather than a bucolic retirement, Twoey was headed to a “killer sale” where injured, worn out and washed up racehorses are sold.

“On the smaller tracks there’s a killer truck,” Robin says. “A horse breaks down and someone comes up to you and says, ‘I’ll give you $600 for your horse and take him off your hands today.’”

Incredible as it is to Americans, Robin says many of these horses end up on the dinner tables of Europeans. But that was not Twoey’s fate.

Thanks to the efforts of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the largest racehorse rescue in the United States, the regal horse received a reprieve. Buyers from the TRF outbid the kill truck and one month later Twoey was in Missouri, on Zac and Robin’s farm, with a companion goat in tow.

Neither Zac nor Robin has any background in racehorses or with thoroughbreds. Instead, she teaches biology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is a professor at the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine where he specializes in computers and medical technology. But during their 18-year marriage both have shared a habit of taking in animals in need.

“We have chickens that people don’t want, guinea pigs. We have a pot-bellied pig from the big pot-bellied pig boom. There’s just one of them left but at one time we had 10,” Robin says.

Robin and Zac care for 24 former race horses on their Out 2 Pasture farm.

When the Co-Mo Electric Cooperative members learned of the plight of racehorses they decided to join the effort. Although Robin owned horses, Zac didn’t ride and says he didn’t much care for horses. Still, they thought saving thoroughbreds was a good use of their time, skills and 100-acre farm.

“We would never make it as cattle farmers and that’s what the farm is set up for,” Zac says. “This allows us to use our land appropriately and gives these guys a good home.”

During the past 20 years the thoroughbred racing community has embraced the horse rescue concept. Owners who lack sufficient land to retire horses are increasingly turning to non-profit retirement organizations such as the TRF, ReRun, Cantor and others as an alternative to killer sales.

“We wish there was a lot more out there,” says Dan Metzger, president of the Kentucky-based Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. “They are a wonderful part of the solution.”

Metzger says about 35,000 thoroughbreds are foaled in North America each year. While some of these are raised on large farms, others have no place to go once their careers are over.

“There’s a large, large number of owners who don’t own farms,” Metzger says. “They race horses. They love the horses. They love the sport. They love the thrill of ownership and the excitement. But when it comes time to retire the horse they need to find a home for them.”

After a yearlong application and inspection process, Zac and Robin were finally approved as a RTF satellite farm in December 1999. Three days later their first shipment of 16 horses arrived. Some came from concerned owners who wanted a good home for their horses but lacked the necessary pasture. Others were simply unwanted or abandoned.

Robin hugs one of her horses.

Walking among the 24 thoroughbreds on their farm during evening chores, Robin and Zac are quick to point out horses who came from caring owners. They tell of owners who donated horses and paid for transportation to Missouri. They recall another who won big at the track and purchased two horses destined for the killer sale. Another woman sends a monthly check for the care of a beloved horse. But all too often the stories are those of neglect and abuse.

“We see the dark side of horse racing. It’s very difficult to look at,” Zac says. “What disturbs us is we see horses that won $100,000 or $200,000 last year and his owner sold him for $600. The horse can make their owner a lot of money and yet they have no emotional attachment to him.”

Some of the Robin and Zac’s horses come from impeccable bloodlines — including one offspring of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew and another from Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion Spectacular Bid. But breeding and past performance do not assure a horse a long life in retirement — especially not for geldings or mares with injuries that prevent them from carrying foals.

“For an owner, he’s a liability, an expense,” Zac says. “It’s sad to say but that’s how it works out.”

Most of the horses the couple adopted have been young thoroughbreds, most less than 3 years old, which have been injured or gone lame. “We’re the gimp farm of the TRF,” Zac says, explaining that the foundation sends them injured animals due to his connections with the MU Vet School.

Students from the University of Missouri's College of Veterinary Medicine discuss Robin and Zac's newest adoption during a lameness examination at the farm.

Much of the care for these animals falls to the Veterinary College’s Equine Ambulatory Practice which makes stable calls for horse owners in Mid-Missouri. The costs for this care are borne by the foundation, sponsors, private donations and by Zac and Robin themselves. As a faculty member Zac once qualified for reduced rates on treatment but university budget cuts eliminated this perk.

Zac did manage to secure a grant to fund a joint project between the farm and the college. Students were videotaped examining horses and determining the cause of their lameness. Students will study the tapes to hone their examination techniques before venturing into the stable.

Dr. Amy Rucker, the veterinarian in charge of the Equine Ambulatory Practice, says Robin and Zac’s farm offers a tremendous teaching opportunity. “We don’t have any tracks in Missouri so these horses have injuries we don’t see much of at school,” she says.

Besides damaged joints many of the horses suffer from psychological injuries as well. In fact, Zac says, even putting them out to pasture is a slow process.

Veterinarians Dr. Amy Rucker and Dr. Nicole Scotty examine the teeth of a thoroughbred. Accustomed to spending their lives in stalls many race horses "crib" or chew on their stalls out of boredom.

“When they come here and they have all this land they don’t know what to do,” he says. “They’ll stand by the barn and shake for days or weeks sometimes. It’s kind of like someone who’s been in jail.”

Because of their injuries and training as racehorses, most of these thoroughbreds will never be anything but pasture pets. For that reason, these horses are unlikely candidates for adoption. Instead, most will live out their lives at Out 2 Pasture.

“That’s our mission — to give these guys a retirement,” Zac says. “This is their last stop. They will die on this place if they’re not adopted.”

“And they will have the best care until they do,” adds Robin. “They deserve this dignity.”

Zac and Robin are on the Internet at www.out2pasture.com. To contact the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation write to 450 Shrewsbury Plaza, Shrewsbury, NJ 07702; phone (732) 957-0182 or visit the organization’s Web site at www.trfinc.org.

Rural Missouri December 2014
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