Del Mar fundraiser helps retired racehorses get ready for rest of their lives

By Claire Harlin

Staff Writer

Haley Sweeting, 15, dreams of being a horse-mounted police officer one day, and she works at the groom tidying stalls just to be around the gentle giants. Since childhood she has wanted a horse of her own to care for and eventually train to be a police horse, and earlier this year her mother decided she was ready to take on the responsibility.

But the Sweeting family, of El Cajon, couldn’t afford to buy a horse for the going rate of $5,000 or more. So they contacted TROTT (Training Racehorses Off The Track), a Southern California nonprofit that trains and rehabilitates retired racehorses to transition them healthily into positive new roles — saving many from slaughter or trauma.

The group recently connected Sweeting with Mikey, a thoroughbred that was injured and never made it to the track, and the two have become best friends.

“She spends every waking moment with him and they’ve made such a difference in each others lives,” said Bonnie Adams, TROTT founder and president. “I know what it’s like. Since the day I could talk I wanted a horse and got my first horse at the age of 8.”

With Sweeting by his side, Mikey will probably go on to be a police horse, but not every former racehorse has a bright future. 1986 Kenucky Derby winner Ferdinand, for example, was sold as a stud to a breeding farm in Japan in 1994 and reports indicate the thoroughbred was eventually slaughtered.

Hearing about cases like Ferdinand led Adams, of Orange County, to found TROTT in 2009, and the 501(C)(3) nonprofit is having its biggest fundraiser yet in Del Mar on Aug. 28 — right after Del Mar’s richest and most prestigious race, the $1 million TVG Pacific Classic.

The dinner event will take place from 6 to 11 p.m. at the San Diego Polo Club and will feature a golf cart polo match, in which professional polo players will drive carts, and a traditional “pretty woman” divot stomp. A live auction will offer packages like a trip to the CMA Awards in Nashville, a Mardi Gras vacation and a VIP Churchill Downs experience.

The event’s honorees will be acclaimed trainer Jack Van Berg and jockey Mike Smith, who is known for riding the victorious Zenyatta, who won two Breeders’ Cups to become the richest female racehorse.

Adams said TROTT has a long waiting list, which grows by as many as eight horses every week, and money raised at the Aug. 28 event will make it possible to care for and rehabilitate more horses at a time. They’ve got the room, just not the money to feed them, Adams said. (Horses in training and ready for adoption, are located at Stonepine Estate outside of Monterey, Calif.)

“It costs a minimum of $300 a month to keep a horse, and once the horse goes to training it’s about $500 to $600 a month,” said Adams. “Our adoption fees are very low — $1,000 to $2,500 — so we never get our money back. But it’s not about that; it’s about finding the right fit.”

When a horse becomes slow or injured, said Adams, the owner often puts finding a home in the trainer’s hands.

“They might end up in the trainer’s backyard, and he might try to find a home, but in the end the trainer has to put food on the table and it costs money to keep a horse in a stall,” Adams said. “Sometimes they can sell to an auction instead of spending the money to keep them.”

Many may think racehorses are high-strung and wild, said Adams, but with the right diet and training, their energy levels can adjust. People who take on racehorses often have good intentions, she said, but they “don’t always know what they are doing.”

That’s where TROTT comes in, and Adams hopes to expand enough to buck the waiting list and accept every retired racehorse that comes her way.

“If we focus on our mission, we’ll be able to pay our bills,” said Adams. “As soon as we can get the funding, we will say ‘yes’ every time and no horse in California will disappear.”