The TRF Vocational Training ProgramDiana Pikulski - Executive Director, Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation
Alan Marzelli: Diana Pikulski has been the executive director of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation since 1997. She knows the history of the organization as well as anyone because she’s been there for all of it. She started as a volunteer, remained involved through college and law school, and has also served on the foundation’s board of directors.
Simply put, the organization has made great strides under her leadership.
Diana, welcome to the Round Table.
Diana Pikulski: Thank you, Alan. Good morning.
Founded close to three decades ago, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation was established to provide meaningful retirement for Thoroughbred horses no longer able to compete on the racetrack.
It is a fact that until recently, a vast majority of the general public, and even many racing fans, were unaware of the sad fate that awaited thousands of Thoroughbreds each year. They assumed each animal was assured a safe and graceful retirement once its racing days were over.
Their perception of the “Sport of Kings” was one where great personal wealth and life-long benevolence to all horses were a given.
Unfortunately, it was a perception that did not accurately reflect reality.
Reality is a Thoroughbred industry made up largely of owners with only modest resources; owners who, no matter how responsible and well-intended, are barely capable of maintaining even a single Thoroughbred when it is no longer able to earn its keep on the track.
Reality is a world where horse meat is in demand in many foreign countries. Several slaughterhouses, now only in Canada and Mexico, are happy to create a supply.
That is a reality that the TRF, and I can now say, the Thoroughbred racing industry is determined to change.
The TRF was founded in 1982; two years later, we had our first retiree. His name was Promised Road, and he was typical of the type of horse that needed help and a caring home.
He was nine years old, an undistinguished campaigner whose career ended with a sixth-place finish in a $3,500 claiming race.
There have been more than 3,000 Thoroughbreds since him who have come under the care of the TRF. They include graded stakes winners and more than 30 who have earned more than $750,000 in their careers. Some have started in their lifetime between 70 and 100 times.
Today, the TRF is the largest and best known organization in the world dedicated to equine sanctuary.
But the TRF is about more than helping horses in need. Early on, the TRF’s founder, Monique Koehler, negotiated a milestone agreement with the New York State Department of Correctional Services. In exchange for land use and inmate labor at New York’s Walkill Correctional Facility, the TRF would design, staff and maintain a vocational training program in equine care and farm management for inmates.
Upon completion of their sentences, many former inmates who have worked with the horses and have gone on to become productive, solid citizens have been quick to give credit to the TRF program for their success.
This unique program has been replicated at TRF farms in seven other states.
A documentary film has been produced about the TRF vocational training program. It is called “Homestretch.” It is showing on PBS stations across the country right now and copies can also be purchased on the TRF website or at homestretchthemovie.com.
Here’s a brief clip.
While the TRF can point with great pride to its many accomplishments over the years, the realization of the ultimate goal — humane retirement for every healthy Thoroughbred racehorse — is not yet complete.
The TRF must continue to grow and expand and establish new partnerships with its racing and breeding counterparts. At the same time, we must firmly establish the operating resources needed to ensure long-term continuity of care for our population of retired racehorses.
In the last 18 months, the tide has turned in our favor with a number of new initiatives to provide funding for TRF programs, including The Jockey Club checkoff program and the recent funding commitment from the New York Racing Association, the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and the New York-based jockeys. We applaud these efforts and encourage other industry stakeholders to follow their lead.
For the TRF, this is the beginning of a new chapter, the end of which will mark the time when racing’s circle of stewardship over these wonderful athletes is complete.
William S. Farish: Thank you Alan, Matt and Diana for those reports.