Horse enthusiasts planning thoroughbred tourist attraction in North County

When Elizabeth Neil moved to Del Mar in the summer of 2017, all she knew is that she wanted to be near horse racing.

The mother of three grown daughters previously lived in Santa Barbara and worked in the wine industry, and whenever there was an important stakes race at Santa Anita, she’d hop in the car and make the 100-mile one-way trip through horrible L.A. traffic to soak up every bit of the racing scene.

A horse enthusiast since childhood, Neil fell in love with Zenyatta, then California Chrome, then Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. On a trip to Kentucky she was thrilled to see Chrome’s offspring.

Neil, 57, dreamed of a job in the industry, but none seemed quite the right fit until she began going to thoroughbred yearling sales and projecting from there the horses’ lives.

If they didn’t make it to the track, or even if they did but couldn’t earn money consistently, what happened to them?

Neil knew there was a grim reality to that, but she began to think of it as an opportunity — a calling, even.

“I wanted to do something to make a difference, to be a part of something I’m passionate about,” Neil said. “That’s where I am now.”

She is at the beginning of a rather audacious undertaking.

Neil and San Diego real estate developer Doug Freeland have received $5.6 million from an unnamed local benefactor to buy a 95-acre horse ranch in De Luz, about six miles northwest of Fallbrook and 25 minutes west of Interstate 15 in Temecula.

It is there that Neil envisions the California Thoroughbred Retirement Project, a facility that would retrain and repurpose former race horses while also providing a comfortable place of retirement for those who are beyond their working years.

Inspired by the success of such Kentucky attractions as the Kentucky Horse Park and Old Friends, Neil’s facility, which has five working wells, also would be an expected tourist draw, including a visitor’s center, up close and personal interaction with former racers, and tours of the various working parts of the ranch.

There are plans for a cafe, souvenir shop and maybe in the more distant future an overnight dude ranch experience. Neil hopes to accommodate about 100 horses in various stages of training or retirement.

Escrow is expected to close on the property in early June.

The De Luz land has an interesting history, Freeland said. Settled in the 1800s, the farm has been owned for the last 40 years by San Diego construction magnate Warner Lusardi. Freeland said Lusardi told him that former President Ronald Reagan took a look at the property as a possible retirement ranch before eventually settling in Santa Barbara.

“The possibilities are unbelievable,” Freeland said.

Recently, Freeland and Neil brought another important contributor into the fold with the enlistment of Brandi Goode as their equine operations consultant. A Carlsbad resident, Goode, 37, has been for the last decade the manager of racehorse/thoroughbred sales for FarmVet, an equine and pet health supply company.

Goode grew up riding show jumpers and later exercised thoroughbreds and worked in numerous capacities for prominent Rancho Santa Fe thoroughbred owners Pam and Marty Wygod.

“Elizabeth and I definitely had the same vision of wanting to focus on the solutions versus the problems,” Goode said.

According to Goode, thoroughbreds can be trained for jumping, hunting, polo, cross country, trail riding, therapy, and even as family pets.

“I really believe that thoroughbreds have a lot better chance after races if they are given the proper bridge,” Goode said. “If they’re happy, healthy horses, they want to work. They are people pleasers; they will do what you tell them to do. You need a program to explain what their jobs are. We want to play the biggest part we can.”

The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), which was formed in 2012 and screens facilities for funding and accreditation, lists 10 aftercare farms in California, but none are of the scale that Neil envisions.

“If there was something here, I definitely think people would come to it,” said Neil, who currently works in property management. “I think what’s important to me is that we bring new fans to the sport. I think there are a lot of people of a certain age who feel like racing isn’t a positive thing for the animals.

“I want to show them that we’re taking really good care of the horses, helping them have second careers, and that there are people who are passionate and care about them.”

The TAA reports on its website that since 2012 it has granted more than $13.8 million to accredited aftercare organizations and that 7,800 thoroughbreds have been retrained, re-homed or retired by the 70 groups with which it is affiliated.

In this state, the California Retirement Management Account (CARMA) holds fundraisers, distributes grants and operates a placement program that in 2018 found homes for 74 thoroughbreds. CARMA reported the number of horses admitted to its program was up 55 percent from 2017.

There remains, however, far too few farms for the number of horses leaving racing (at least 20,000 thoroughbred foals are born each year), and the results of that is the sport’s horrific dark side.

Though the slaughter of horses for their meat was halted in the U.S. in 2007, as many as 10,000 thoroughbreds, and more than 80,000 horses total, each year are sent to Canada and Mexico to be inhumanely killed, according to the ASPCA.

Facilities such as the one Neil envisions are working to reduce the numbers, but it is an expensive proposition. Neil said she expects to need $3.5 million per year to maintain the retirement farm, with a cost of $10 million to build out all the amenities for horses and visitors.

Grants alone will probably not accomplish that, Neil said, so she likely will need a number of wealthy benefactors to jump on board and possibly put their name on the various facilities of the farm.

Neil is wrapping up the application for nonprofit status and is putting out appeals to philanthropists in and outside of horse racing.

“We want to make people aware that we’re out there,” Neil said. “You never know what’s possible once people find out about it.”

--Tod Leonard is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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