Why Are Good Young Racehorses Ending Up As Meat 7,000 Miles Away?

Why Are Good Young Racehorses Ending Up As Meat 7,000 Miles Away?
Illustration: Elena Scotti (G/O Media), Photo: Getty, Shutterstock
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Two years in the life and death of a racehorse:

April 17, 2017, a sunny morning in Ocala, Florida, marked the start of the largest sale of two-year-old thoroughbreds in the country. Ace King, a bay colt then still unnamed and known only as hip number 200 from the sticker attached to his side, was one of 1,208 entered in the catalog. The auction itself was still a week away, and first Ace King and the others had to breeze a short distance—an eighth of a mile or a quarter-mile—in front of onlookers at the Ocala Training Center. Like horse racing’s version of the NFL scouting combine, these workouts give buyers a chance to study the mechanics of the unraced prospects.

Right before a quarter to eight, hip number 200 took off sprinting. He wore a black hood known as blinkers, meant to keep him looking ahead and undistracted, and an evergreen saddlecloth bearing his hip number. His rider pushed him vigorously, occasionally showing him his whip. They crossed the finish in 20 2/5 seconds for a quarter-mile—one tick off Ocala’s all-time record. Another 180 horses breezed the same distance and weren’t able to top him.

Ace King’s auction-best workout.

His workout made headlines, and over the next week, interested buyers visited his barn not far from the sales ring. They analyzed his black-type pedigree, which, not surprisingly, boasted speed on both sides of his family. He was a son of Florida’s leading stallion, Wildcat Heir, a fast but brittle sprinter that died unexpectedly in 2015, and his maternal line featured top-class runners going back three generations.

Being the quickest at age two can be a mixed blessing. It often means the horse has just matured faster than his peers. There were also other factors to consider, like his conformation and his temperament. But he’d already changed hands for $35,000 in Ocala the previous August, so there was no doubt he’d sell for more now.

At Ocala’s first of four full-day auction sessions, Ace King sold for $170,000 to K.O.I.D., a South Korea–based company that had become a familiar presence at Ocala and other big U.S. sales, where it handles logistics like shipping for the horses selected for purchase by Korean owners and trainers. Similar outfits like Triple Crown and the Seoul Racehorse Owners’ Association were also there at Ocala looking for quality American bloodstock.

Racing in South Korea is still a relative newcomer on the international stage, but it’s growing, and it looks a lot like the American version. Races are run on dirt surfaces and speed tends to be valued over stamina. So to fill their races and build their bloodlines, Korean interests have been buying more and more American stallions, broodmares, race-ready two-year-olds and yearlings. In 2017, Ace King was one of 419 American horses sold to Korean interests.

For close to two decades, the Korea Racing Authority (KRA), a federal agency, had placed price caps on most imported horses, but by the time Ocala’s 2017 spring sale rolled around, they’d been discarded. Korean horsemen thus opened their wallets for better horses, spending almost $3 million on at least 51 juveniles at this Ocala sale alone. Ace King was their most expensive, and among their most promising.

He and most of the other purchased horses arrived in Korea in early June. He joined a stable at Seoul Racecourse in the city’s southern suburbs, where expectations were high. But there on the other side of the world, Ace King just didn’t pan out.

That summer and fall, the best he could do in four races was a third-place finish. In early 2018, he finished second, a sign, perhaps, of his natural talent emerging. But his veterinary log filled with entries for exercise-induced fatigue and arthritis, and in his next starts he was nothing but cannon fodder. Finally, in a race on January 27, 2019, he staggered to the finish line last of 12. Two other graduates from his auction finished eighth and ninth.

The next day, he was diagnosed with a fracture in his right leg, according to KRA records, and two days after that he was retired. Within two weeks he was ferried south to the island of Jeju, a mountainous resort destination for millions of Koreans and Chinese, and the epicenter of South Korea’s livestock and horse-breeding industries. There would be no return from the island.

A two-year-old filly, still unnamed, stands with a bloody nose outside the slaughterhouse as she waits to be killed.
A two-year-old filly, still unnamed, stands with a bloody nose outside the slaughterhouse as she waits to be killed.
Screenshot: PETA

On the morning of February 18, he was trucked to South Korea’s largest slaughterhouse. Its owner, an enormous conglomerate called Nonghyup, controls agricultural and livestock businesses along with banks and other financial services. Ace King was the first of eight horses that day to be prodded down a narrow concrete-and-metal chute to his death. A bolt was fired into his brain before he was hoisted up and his throat was cut. He was the 109th horse killed at that slaughterhouse since the start of the year. His meat was then processed, packaged, and likely sent to one of the Nonghyup-owned grocery stores on the island.

Among his Ocala class, now four years old, Ace King wasn’t alone. Of the 50 bought at that auction that were sent to Korea—one stayed in the States to race—14 are already dead. At least seven were killed at the same slaughterhouse in Jeju. (Ocala didn’t return several messages asking for comment.)

These seven all had desirable pedigrees and sold for a combined $475,000. There were two sons of the preeminent stallion Candy Ride, a sire of six champions. Honor Step sold for $110,000 but never even got to the races; he was slaughtered in April 2018. One In A Billion changed hands for $220,000 as a yearling but in Ocala sold for a quarter of that to Korea Bloodstock; after one win in six starts, he was retired in February and sent to slaughter in March.

All That Chase, a big chestnut son of Power Broker, and Myeongga Jewang, a bay son of Yes It’s True, had two wins in 18 races between them. They were reunited last December, the ninth and 10th horses to enter the Nonghyup slaughterhouse that day.

Three others likely met a similar outcome but don’t appear in the Nonghyup records (there are a few smaller slaughterhouses on the mainland), while four died of fatal injuries or disease, according to their medical records.

All of this information can be found on the KRA’s online studbook—if you know where to look. On this count, Korean racing couldn’t be more unlike American racing, where a patchwork of state commissions rarely gather, let alone disclose, veterinary or transfer records. The KRA, however, monitors and tracks racehorses throughout their careers, from foaling to death, and makes this information public. The KRA falls under the country’s Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which means that horse racing goes hand-in-hand with the raising and processing of horses for food for human consumption. Indeed, the KRA publishes quarterly spreadsheets of the horses slaughtered during that period.

Looking through those spreadsheets, attaching stories to the cold numbers, I found the full range of situations: young and old, short careers and long careers, injured and sound, and a whole lot like Ace King that had sold at American auctions.

The numbers continue to grow. Between 2003 and 2014 the number of horses sent to slaughter tripled, from 315 to 1,036, according to government figures published by the since-shuttered Korea Observer. Last year, that number was 1,249. More than three-quarters of those were killed at Nonghyup’s plant on Jeju.

The recent surge seems to coincide with a five-year plan the KRA announced in 2012 to expand the horse industry as a means to revitalize the country’s rural economy. “Unlike other livestock raised mostly for eating, horses can meet multiple purposes including horse racing, riding, tourism and rehabilitation,” the chairman of the KRA told the Korea Times then. “In addition, horse meat is good and we will work on ways of encouraging people to eat it in the future.”

In Jeju, there’s a saying: “Beef is not enough for a meal, but horse meat is.” It’s become something of a tourist attraction there to eat horse meat, often served raw, at one of the island’s more than 50 restaurants that specializes in it. Sirloin horse steaks are sold at Nonghyup’s supermarkets in Jeju for around $17 per pound, but other cuts go for less. The cheapest parts are turned into jerky or processed for fertilizer. A survey carried out by the KRA in 2015 found that 65 percent of Koreans are willing to eat horse meat, and one of its spokesmen was quoted in the Korea Observer as saying, “The most important thing at this moment is to increase the supply of horse meat.”

It’s long been taboo to eat horse meat in the U.S., partly, it seems, because of their symbolism as companion animals, and also because beef has almost always been more affordable. In America, eating horse meat has been associated with desperate, troubled times during war or revolution or famine. Most other countries don’t harbor this taboo, and Korea has a tradition of eating horse meat that goes back thousands of years. But in the U.S., where the last horse-specific slaughterhouse was closed in 2007, the practice of selling racehorses to slaughter—equine athletes that earned cheers from crowds and earned money for their human backers—has, at times, been a public-relations crisis for the American racing industry. Lately, activist and animal welfare groups have tried to make a dent in the transportation of U.S. horses to Mexico or Canada, where slaughterhouses remain. It’s one of the few issues in American racing where there appears to be little disagreement: A horse that runs its heart out should be rewarded with a decent life after its racing career is over.

A slaughterhouse worker strikes a mare in the face with a metal pole during unloading.
A slaughterhouse worker strikes a mare in the face with a metal pole during unloading.
Screenshot: PETA

That South Korea’s supply of horse meat comes in part from American racehorses is basically unknown in the American racing world, even though it’s an open secret there and the subject of retirement has become a major concern here and worldwide. Instead, most of the focus is on Korean racing’s spectacular growth, largely due to these acquisitions of American bloodstock. (“Is Korea the next big racing empire?” asks the Racing Post in a familiar headline.)

Jun Park, a U.S.-based bloodstock consultant who buys American horses for Korean owners, said that when he first began working in American horse racing 20 years ago, “People asked me if I was from Japan. Nobody even knew Korea had horse racing.”

American sales companies have certainly welcomed South Korea’s growing investment. In 2010, after 92 horses were bought for export to Korea at Ocala’s spring sale, or 12.4 percent of the total sold, Tom Ventura, now its president, noted, “They have been very good customers for the last four or five years.” In 2013, Fasig-Tipton’s director of marketing, Terence Collier, told the Daily Racing Form that if all goes well, Korea “is going to be a market that’s going to be very productive for us for a long time.”

According to the KRA, 4,301 racehorses and 2,681 broodmares have been imported from the U.S. since 1994. Almost all of the racehorses are yearling and two-year-old purchases from U.S. auctions. Colts outweigh fillies, and most appear to be gelded in Korea. In other words, they’re brought over primarily to race, not to breed, and when their racing days end, they only have one way to offer their owners a little more value.

The final stop for Ace King and so many horses like him is a dimly-lit, rudimentary-looking warehouse. The inside is all metal and concrete. It’s located in the northwest part of Jeju, and outside its gates are crop farms lined with walls of basalt, the volcanic rock for which the island is famous.

Investigators from PETA visited the Nonghyup plant twice last year and again earlier this year, and they recently shared their footage and their experiences with me. You can see an edited version below; I watched the full, uncut footage.

The scenes of horses before they were killed were impossible to get out of my mind, and they brought back upsetting memories of watching other racehorses, much closer to home, sent on their way to a similar end.

In 2008, I worked on an undercover investigation for HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel about American racehorses ending up at the slaughterhouse. At a track in West Virginia, I watched unsound or too-slow horses sold by their owners to a weekly visitor known as the Meat Man. His rickety blue truck crawled up and down rows of faded barns, and the horses he hauled away ended up at an Ohio livestock auction a day or two later. The smell of the place clings to you for days. Kill buyers, the men with quotas to meet, looked at the horses in the auction ring only as cuts of meat. Once their double-decker trailers were full, they drove their load up to plants in Canada. The last horse slaughterhouse in the U.S. had already closed, but there was no prohibition within horse racing on feeding the international pipeline.

The HBO report spurred a crackdown by some racetracks on individuals who were caught red-handed, but the pipeline only became more secretive, and middlemen still find ways to get horses to kill buyers. It’s hard to police, and with the exception of a few animal rescue groups, nobody hangs out at those auctions checking the identities of the racehorses there. It’s still just business as usual.

At the Nonghyup plant, the atmosphere seems almost casual, but with a run-of-the-mill cruelty that invariably exists at such a place. There are no double-deckers here. Small, worn trucks drop off a horse or two at a time, while pigs arrive by the dozens. Standing in the open bed of the truck, the horses struggle not to slip. Thoroughbreds aren’t the only horses sent there either, but are killed alongside local breeds you only find in Korea, as well as ones exclusively raised as livestock. That these racehorses once held such promise doesn’t earn them any special treatment at the end.

In the footage I watched, two horses that stood out were Royal River and Air Blade. They arrived side-by-side on a late morning last November in the back of a modest blue truck. Both were bred in Korea from American stallions. Royal River was a tall, bay, three-year-old filly by Chapel Royal, with a distinctive white blaze down her forehead. She stood slightly taller than Air Blade, a compact chestnut gelding a year older than her. He was a son of the country’s new leading stallion, Ecton Park.

Royal River’s last race had been two months earlier, and it showed. She looked unkempt. Air Blade, on the other hand, was full of energy and his chestnut coat reflected the morning sun. Three weeks earlier, he’d finished fifth in a lower-tier race at Busan. Before that, he had finished in the money three times out of four, but his schedule was spotty, with long gaps between races, and his career began later than most. It might have been that his owner thought he was no longer worth the trouble.

Air blade enters the kill chute.
Air blade enters the kill chute.
Screenshot: PETA

After checking in at the entrance gate, the truck drove to the rear of the slaughterhouse and backed up to the unloading dock. Crows called overhead while four other trucks, with five horses, idled in the lot. At a quarter after 11, an employee tugged on Royal River’s halter to get her to turn around. She would go in first. Air Blade’s halter was removed, then hers. They didn’t need a halter where they were going.

Royal River was hustled through a narrow chute bounded by metal bars, then across a puddle and up a metal ramp with concrete barriers on either side. A guillotine-like gate lifted and she walked to the end of the ramp. The gate closed behind her while two workers forced Air Blade off the truck. The screams of pigs filled the fluorescent-lit room.

Separated only by that gate, the horses waited quietly for another nine minutes. At 11:30, a man wearing a white apron and helmet climbed stairs to the top of a platform next to Royal River. He hovered a bolt gun over her head, and landed it with a loud bang that reverberated off the concrete walls. Royal River crashed to the floor. Air Blade tried to back up, but there was nowhere to go. Royal River was chained and hoisted up by her right hind leg, and her lifeless body sent down the line, off-camera but presumably to be exsanguinated. Three minutes later, knowing what was coming, Air Blade entered the kill box, where he reared up in a futile resistance. The camera cut away after Air Blade was bolted, as a slaughterhouse employee asked the undercover investigator to leave the area.

PETA’s investigators say that killing one horse in front of another violates Korean law, and they filmed other instances of unnecessary cruelty. An employee beats a horse across the face with a metal pole. Another horse bleeds from both nostrils upon arrival. One day in February, a 6-year-old chestnut with a Japanese pedigree named Cape Magic arrives with his left front foot heavily bandaged. He had raced only three days before at Busan. Hardy but one-paced, he earned almost $90,000 in five years of racing. After 44 races, this was his final stop.

Korean racing dates to the 1920s, but its modern explosion began with converting the equestrian park from the 1988 Seoul Olympics into Seoul Racecourse the following year. A second track opened in Busan, the country’s second largest city, in 2005. A third, in Jeju, hosts pony racing.

The KRA owns and operates all three, and with a slightly goofy rebranding, it has tried to change the perception of horse racing in the country. Its main tracks are now called LetsRun Park Seoul and LetsRun Park Busan; Seoul’s two grandstands are called Happy Ville and Lucky Ville (and can hold 77,000 people), and three years ago a theme park called Whinny World opened in the infield.

Seoul and Busan only race between Friday and Sunday. Limited racing means larger fields, higher betting turnover, and larger prize money. In 2018, 1,100 races were held at Seoul with an average purse of around $124,000, while Busan’s 806 races averaged almost $74,000. Korea’s annual betting turnover now tops $7 billion, which amounts to the seventh-highest in the world. Its two biggest races, the Korea Cup and Korea Sprint, are sponsored by Keeneland, and are now broadcast live on TVG, the U.S.-based racing network.

Keeneland, in Lexington, Kentucky, is America’s thoroughbred breeding capital, and Korean owners spend millions of dollars there every year on dozens of broodmares and yearlings. (At its 2018 November sale, Lil Indy, the dam of this year’s Florida Derby winner and Kentucky Derby contender Maximum Security, was sold to a Korean owner for $11,000 while carrying Maximum Security’s full sister.) In the rolling farms nearby, the KRA itself buys American stallions. Rather than expect individuals to carry that big-ticket investment, the government puts up the money for the stallions and offers horsemen the chance to send their broodmares to them, free of charge, at the KRA’s 2,000-acre stud farm in Jeju. The farm is about an hour’s drive from the Nonghyup slaughterhouse.

American bloodlines thus rule Korea’s breeding industry. According to the KRA, 107 stallions have been imported from the U.S., and a few may be familiar to a casual audience: Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion Hansen, Florida Derby winner Take Charge Indy, Haskell winners Any Given Saturday, Peace Rules, and Menifee, and Santa Anita Handicap winner Rock Hard Ten.

The KRA usually purchases a stallion for between $2–3 million, says Thomas Clark, a Lexington-based bloodstock consultant who has negotiated some of these deals on its behalf. Clark has been advising the KRA since 1998. Between 2004 and 2010, he and another agent purchased about 150 two-year-olds annually for the KRA, he said, horses the KRA then resold to private owners in Korea.

“All this time, they’ve been increasing their quality,” Clark told me. “About eight or nine years ago, the government stopped buying the two-year-olds and reselling them back in Korea. Once the business became a little more mature, the buyers came out themselves and now they buy the racehorses.”

More recently, in another quality-control effort, the KRA has sent officials, trainers, and exercise riders to apprentice with American stables and hired Americans to offer clinics for trainers in Korea. The KRA also keeps a small stable of 10 horses in Kentucky, and it made a huge splash last year when its two-year-old Knicks Go pulled off a 77-1 upset in a Grade 1 at Keeneland. Knicks Go then ran second in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

It all adds up to one of the fastest-growing and most-ambitious circuits in the world, supported by important American groups and horsemen. But what of the glut of horses from this build-up?

When I asked Clark about racehorses sent to slaughter, he was skeptical. “I went to Korea twice a year for 10 years, but I never saw horse meat on the menu, and I never heard anyone talking about it,” he told me. “I don’t personally know anything about cruelty to horses. You could make guesses about what may happen to geldings and older horses, but I don’t know.”

If this practice isn’t widely broadcast, it’s at least an open secret for some of the world’s most important racing officials. In May 2018, a new group called the International Forum for the Aftercare of Racehorses held its second conference in Seoul, during the 37th Asian Racing Conference. An entire day was devoted to equine welfare. Racing execs from all over the world, including America, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Japan, Great Britain, and Hong Kong, all gave presentations on their welfare efforts.

Dr. Jinkap Kim, one of the KRA’s chief equine veterinarians, gave a case study of Korean aftercare. It was brief.

Kim said 1,600 racehorses are retired annually in Korea, and of those, 170 start a second life as broodmares or stallions. He said very few of the rest—about 50—can be successfully retrained as equestrian or recreation horses. He left out what happens to the others. Vaguely, he said that 200 are disqualified as racehorses, while another 650 simply cannot be traced in the system. Since the KRA tracks everything, this claim seems questionable.

“It’s very expensive to take care of the horse after it’s retired,” Kim said. Ideal conditions for retirement, he illustrated with photos in one slide, would be racehorses grazing in an open meadow. The real conditions, he showed in the next, were emaciated horses collapsing to the ground or standing in a muddy paddock.

He proposed three “realistic” solutions for this situation: prolong their racing careers, increase the number of broodmares, and support a euthanasia program. “We don’t like to talk about this issue,” he said of euthanasia, “but I think it’s time for that.”

Although Kim didn’t mention the slaughterhouse, this solution seemed to hang in the air throughout his presentation. Indeed, his suggestions, apart from euthanasia, aren’t incompatible with it. That destination might just come later.

Beonkwae Janggun, a Korean-born four-year-old, outside the Nonghyup slaughterhouse.
Beonkwae Janggun, a Korean-born four-year-old, outside the Nonghyup slaughterhouse.
Screenshot: PETA

Most of the horses in the undercover footage PETA filmed were born in Korea, by American stallions, while a few others had come from American and Australian auctions. While the footage shows the nature of their deaths, the KRA’s own records tell their life stories. And few horses, no matter their age or success, are immune from the prospect of the trip to Jeju.

Young horses like Analytical, a son of Overanalyze sold at Fasig-Tipton’s Mid-Atlantic sale in Maryland, and Honor Step, the six-figure son of Candy Ride sold at Ocala, were slaughtered at the age of three. In February, a two-year-old filly was sent to the Nonghyup plant; she’s listed in the KRA studbook only as the foal of Wonder Dreamer, because she hadn’t yet received a name of her own.

Older horses that had earned a lot of money for their owners also ended up there. Last December, a Florida-bred named Naha was slaughtered at the same facility on the same day as her daughter, Challanhabit. Naha was imported after racing in south Florida, and she produced nine runners in 17 years; most of them were winners, and Challanhabit earned more than $160,000. But as a broodmare Challanhabit couldn’t reach the same success, and after two barren years she joined her mother at the slaughterhouse.

Chief Red Can, a Maryland-bred gelding that earned more than a half-million dollars, was sent to slaughter less than two years after his greatest hour: winning the 2015 KRA Cup Classic. Cheonjeok was sold to the Seoul Racehorse Owners’ Association as a two-year-old for $22,000, and he went on to win more than a half-million dollars during seven years on the track. His last race came on February 17, and he was slaughtered on March 28.

Had all these horses remained in the States, there’s no guarantee their lives would have ended differently. Look no further than the recent spate of fatal breakdowns at Santa Anita Park to see how deadly the sport is here—five times deadlier, by some accounts, than horse racing in the rest of the world. But while the chances of going to a slaughterhouse in Korea are high, in the U.S., where true figures are harder to come by, it appears 10,000-12,000 thoroughbred racehorses are shipped to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada every year. (To put that in context, the North American foal crop in 2018 was a little less than 20,000.)

The total number of horses heading across the border seems to be on its way down, however, with around 70,000 in 2017, according to one advocacy group, less than half of the figure from 2012. The main reason is almost certainly a European Union ban on horse meat from Mexico and a tightening of regulations in Canada, owing to food safety and traceability concerns; horses from the U.S. are routinely treated with drugs throughout their lives that are otherwise banned in livestock. The EU’s restrictions even led to a temporary closure of a slaughterhouse in Quebec—the same one that was the final destination for many racehorses from the Ohio livestock auction I’d once visited.

In recent years, various groups in the U.S. have introduced or funded programs that form a rather stitched-together safety net for retired thoroughbreds. They really had no choice. Beginning near the end of last decade, a spell of investigative reports exposed how racehorses were doped up during their careers and became an afterthought once those careers were finished.

After the HBO segment I worked on, the New York Times’ Joe Drape broke the story of neglect and cruelty at the Hudson Valley farm of prominent owner-breeder Ernie Paragallo, crimes for which Paragallo was sentenced to two years in jail. A number of racetracks introduced zero-tolerance policies for any trainer or owner whose horses ended up at livestock auctions. Around that time, the sport’s drug problems were dragged before Congress after the Kentucky Derby breakdown of Eight Belles and the admission that the winner, Big Brown, had been running on legal anabolic steroids. The Times followed that with a multi-part, front-page series in 2012 on what it called the “death and disarray” at America’s tracks.

In its aftermath, industry stakeholders set up the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, a non-profit that, in its words, “accredits, inspects and awards grants to approved aftercare organizations to retrain, retire and rehome Thoroughbreds.” The likes of the Jockey Club and the major sales companies help fund the organization, and their heads either sit on the board of directors or had until recently. By its own account, the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance has helped find a new home or career for more than 7,800 former racehorses, and awarded close to $14 million to 70 different groups that have taken them in.

The truth is, there are no formal protocols that govern what should happen, and financial contributions from within the industry are mostly voluntary. “I wish we were the aftercare police, but we’re not,” says Stacie Clark Rogers, operations consultant for the TAA and a leader in the field. (The group’s accreditation model has inspired similar undertakings in Ireland, France, and Japan. “It’s been suggested that I go to South Korea,” she told me. “I would happily go, but they’ve never reached back out.”)

The TAA fills a large hole, but it’s limited by its budget and by the level of cooperation it receives from the industry. Meanwhile, there are smaller organizations at racetracks in New York, Maryland, and California that look for horses that could end up in the hands of a Meat Man or kill buyer. And the Jockey Club has tried to encourage retraining horses for second careers through an incentives program offering prize money at horse shows and events.

“I’d like to get more aftercare liaisons at racetracks, someone whose job it is to meet with owners and trainers and explain the next steps for their horses as their careers are coming to an end,” says Kristin Werner Leshney, the Jockey Club’s senior counsel, who helps oversee its aftercare initiatives. “We have to make sure that people on the backside know that aftercare is important to the racing industry as a whole.”

An important part, too, is what happens when horses are sold at public auctions. The major sales companies are vocal supporters of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, with pages on their websites and in their sales catalogs highlighting the organization. Sellers and buyers can automatically contribute one-twentieth of a percent, or $5 per $10,000 transaction, to the alliance, while the sales companies match those donations. Individuals can opt out, however, and one prominent breeder who’s been involved in these efforts believes about half do. (“I’d love to see it mandatory,” the breeder told me.)

None of this money is earmarked for horses sold to foreign buyers, and there are no restrictions on who can take part in the sales. They’re public markets, offering a forum for the exchange of horses and money, and it’s almost impossible to direct where foreign-bought horses are going to end up.

A three-year-old filly is struck in the face by a slaughterhouse worker during unloading.
A three-year-old filly is struck in the face by a slaughterhouse worker during unloading.
Screenshot: PETA

“I would not pretend to say that I know enough about what goes on in Korea to say there is a problem out there,” said Terence Collier, Fasig-Tipton’s longtime director of marketing. “I understand that in Japan and Korea horse meat is a minor part but a specialist part of certain regions. From my knowledge, they breed horses specifically for horse meat. We have done some examination with our agents and with our clients, and whilst we know that it is inevitable that in that culture some will head to a slaughterhouse at some point, we do know that it is not of epidemic proportions.”

Collier said that Fasig-Tipton only sells 40 to 50 horses a year to Korea, fewer than the Ocala or Keeneland sales companies, and a small percentage of the total number of horses they sell annually. Collier said he has made five trips to Korea in the last three years and visited training centers at both racetracks, where he said the horses are cared for as they would be in America. “It is very important to the perception of the sport and to the nobility of these animals that they are treated well,” he said.

“If they’re in a food chain,” Collier said of horses sent to slaughter, “it’s not going to be as desirable an end as we all imagined. That is just part of life, I’m afraid. But we need never to drop our guard, whether it’s in this country or overseas, and it’s not just for the perception but for the animal itself. They serve us so well and we owe constant care to them through the rest of their lives.”

I called one of Kentucky’s famous breeders, Arthur Hancock III, who sold his Grade 1 winner Menifee to the KRA in 2006, and he was apologetic that he didn’t know more about the other side to Korean racing.

“That’s the first I’ve ever heard about it,” Hancock told me. “I just don’t know what they do over there. It’s a helluva long way away from Kentucky. The only thing I ever heard about were the facilities they had for Menifee.”

The KRA purchased Menifee as a 10-year-old stallion, a deal negotiated by Thomas Clark, the bloodstock consultant. Hancock says Clark assured him that Menifee would be safe there and told him that the KRA’s stud farm in Jeju was first-class. Clark reiterated this to me, and said that in one corner of the farm is a barn for retired stallions, where they live out their days and ultimately die of old age. He had sent photos of the headstones of deceased stallions to Hancock before closing the deal.

The same could not be said for a former horse of his named Unreined. A daughter of the Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, she only made one start in her career, then returned to Hancock’s farm. She gave birth to five foals in consecutive years, including two by Menifee, and then in 2010 was sold at Keeneland’s fall breeding stock sale. Her best days as a broodmare were behind her, so she went for just $13,000 to a successful Korean breeder. In her new country, she changed hands four times and only had three offspring. Following two barren years, she was sent to slaughter in 2018.

When I told Hancock Unreined’s story, he allowed how difficult it is to keep track of horses once they’re no longer yours. If a horse is sold to a foreign buyer at auction, he said, “Hell, it’s out of our hands.”

In 2019, 46 American racehorses have already left for Korea, a group that will continue to grow as the auction season picks up steam. Just last week, Korean buyers purchased 71 horses from the Ocala spring two-year-old sale, the same one where Ace King was picked two years ago. They spent just over $3 million on what amounted to more than 10 percent of the total number of horses sold at the event.

Ahead of Ocala, one prominent consignor and trainer who has worked with the KRA boasted of the love for horses in Korea and her clients’ eagerness to learn everything about American racing. “I try to tell people, ‘When your horse is sold to Korea you should be really happy for them because they’re going to have a good life,’” she said. “They’re well cared for.”

Ryan Goldberg is an award-winning freelance journalist who lives in Brooklyn. His work can be found at his website.