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Freedom Ride: Maybe, Maybe Not

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Orlando, the city where the children of the world come to play – the lucky ones, anyway – still hasn’t decided whether or not the local kids deserve a break.

But they’re kind of leaning in that general direction.

Although no move has been made to offer Freedom Ride a new five year lease to extend the current one, which ends in 2011, the Orlando Sentinel reported that “at least three of the six city commissioners agree that Freedom Ride should stay.” Mayor Buddy Dyer appears to be leaning in that direction as well. But no talks are scheduled, and it’s possible that the city government will take the easy way out – ignore the issue until the contract runs out.

Starting from scratch isn't cheap

It’s hard to imagine a worse publicity journey than the one which Mayor Dyer embarked upon a few months ago when he decided that the therapeutic riding center in Metro Orlando would be of better use as fallow fields, awaiting funding in the undefined future to become still more soccer fields. As every SUV within one hundred miles of Orlando has at least one soccer-related decal affixed to it, I fail to see why the city feels honor-bound to provide so many playing fields that it can’t spare ten acres for children, adults, and veterans with everything from multiple sclerosis to ADHD, whose lives are changed daily by visits to the horses of Freedom Ride. It appears, to me, anyway, that everyone in Orlando is already playing soccer somewhere.

The president of Freedom Ride’s board of directors, Sam Dunaway, told the Sentinel that starting from scratch, on a new piece of land, would cost more than $500,000 – they would require new barns, new arenas, new paddocks, new everything. To say nothing, of course, of the cost to the users of the program. It might be an hour’s commute from East Orange County to Freedom Ride now. If they ended, say, west of town, in Lake County, where the land is almost, vaguely, sort of, still affordable, it would be more than two hours. Prohibitive in time, to say nothing of gas, inching back again towards three dollars a gallon, and the interminable toll roads which are the only way to get around Orlando.

In 2000, when Orlando was trying to decide what to do with Ben White Raceway, bids were submitted that included creating a showground. Imagine if Orlando, always second best in equine terms to Ocala, Wellington, and Tampa, might have rivaled Tampa’s fairgrounds, the eventual building of HITS Post Time in Ocala or Jacksonville Equestrian Center. If money had been the object, profitable measures were there for the taking, that could have been good for Orlando’s struggling equestrian industry and the city. But the city decided on Freedom Ride, allowed them to build a beautiful facility, and if charity and a sense of decency aren’t enough to allow the group to stay, then a sense of responsibility ought to be.

Written by Natalie Keller Reinert

April 7, 2010 at 9:47 am

Further Proof Horses Are Not Food

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You can eat it if you want. I wouldn’t.

Here’s a lovely new study by the Equine Welfare Alliance, which followed eighteen slaughter-bound racehorses from the day they were administered bute (remember, it’s reported to the racing officials on race day, and filed) to the day they went to the kill. Oh the delicious, toxic meat. Bute, we should know by now, is a carcinogen, which manifests itself in bone marrow. It is toxic to the point that there are no safe levels permitted in food at all.

We might all be ill-advised to eat cattle, pigs, and chickens. But we’re flipping insane to eat racehorses.

In Alex Brown’s article, “Keeping Bute Out of the Food Chain,” he cites the Daily Racing Form’s statistic that in 2009, “99% of horses that ran in California pre-raced on Bute (7391 out of 7443).”

And these are the legally slaughtered horses.

Meanwhile, in South Florida, the legislators are writing bills creating felony charges for illegal slaughter – you know, when people find a horse they like, tie it to a tree, and butcher it while it is still alive. Evidently, they believe that this practice is limited to polo ponies, so Representative Luis Garcia (D. – Miami-Dade) assured a Miami blogger that they’ve amended the bill criminalizing illegal slaughter to include the transport of polo ponies. Which is interesting, considering the poster child for illegal horse butchering is a paint named Geronimo.

In reading the bill (which cites, in part, that a reason for criminalizing illegal horse slaughter is to “protect Florida’s natural beauty,” since unsightly horse carcasses have been found on previously pastoral roadsides), it appears that previously, it was only illegal to slaughter registered horses. The language reads that it will now “expand the classification of protection for registered breeds of horses to include any animal of the genus Equus (horse.)” Now grade horses are safe, too!

All joking aside, I find it striking that the horse slaughter debate continues to skirt the issue of food safety. You can spare me the arguments that the horse is not livestock, that civilization itself was built on the backs of horses and it is inappropriate to eat such a noble beast. As it happens, I believe all those arguments, too. But there are just as many people who will never be convinced of the social and philosophical reasons why horses are not food.

The real point to be made is that horses are simply not fit to be eaten. In a country which is repeatedly gripped by various medical panics – contaminated vegetables, bacteria-ridden meat, irradiated milk – no one is saying much about the most compelling reason of all not to slaughter horses: they simply aren’t safe to eat.

Written by Natalie Keller Reinert

April 6, 2010 at 10:52 pm

From Aqueduct to Albany

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There is news today that perhaps the horsemen have been heard, as the Thoroughbred Times reports that legislation has been introduced in New York to facilitate a transparent new process for approving a racino operator at Aqueduct.

It wasn't the cover. But it was something.

This is just days after the so-called Big A-6 managed to cancel the first race at Aqueduct, boycotting with their six entries, and brought together the racing community at neighboring Belmont for a rally calling upon Albany to stop stalling and give the horsemen what they had been promised: a racino, the chance at renewed purses and breeders’ incentives, the knowledge that the business was not bankrupt and the Thoroughbreds could go on running.

The latest twist in the long plot of the Video Lottery Terminals (VLT) that have been coming to an Aqueduct near you for nine years… and just why do the words Video Lottery Terminals seem so magical to members of the racing industry?

Because they’ve worked before.

As Jay Hovdey points out in his blog at the Daily Racing Form (may require free reg.), the racino is not the silver bullet, and in some locations, the hugely successful casinos are trying to shoulder out the horses or dogs that brought them there in the first place. But they are a start. And with the example of New York’s Standardbred industry –  racetracks like Yonkers offering gaming to those looking for quicker pay-outs than what they’d receive from studying the past performances, the track conditions, and the Beyer figures, not to mention the many successful Thoroughbred tracks in the country, from Delaware to Mountaineer Park – the way to saving New York Thoroughbred racing seems clear enough.

And by and large, governments are turning to VLTs and racinos to save themselves from the huge budget shortfalls of the Great Recession. Just today, the New Hampshire Senate passed a bill allowing video lottery in six locations – including three racetracks – with the goal of earning enough to restore cut social services.

The possibility of not just saving the horsemen and the communities around them, but actually making back the money necessary to close New York’s budget gap, rescue NYRA’s signature tracks and races (the Belmont Stakes among them), and creating hundreds of additional jobs in New York City, ought to be too much for the legislators in Albany to turn down. If they can just stand to do something without giving all the deals to their friends, as in the case of the Aqueduct Entertainment Group.

Sen. Marty Golden, (R-Brooklyn) has proposed an open plan to allow an accounting firm to review bids and make a recommendation, and requires the state to review the recommendation publicly within ten days, making a final decision within fifteen days of the public hearing.

Yes, that’s allowing 25 days, assuming the legislation gets through, and bids are made in a timely manner. Fairly speedy, for government. Especially a government that has spent nine years doing – what, exactly? Nine years, nine foal crops, nine summers at Saratoga, a generation of children from kindergarten to high school – nine years of uncertainty for thousands of people in and around the racing business.

New York Racing’s Rally for Jobs – And Community

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The rally at Belmont Park on Sunday afternoon wasn’t about horses. It wasn’t about gambling. It wasn’t about fair labor, or working conditions, or any of the usual suspects that incite workers’ rallies.

It was about the continued survival of a community.

Tens of thousands jobs are on the line, and as New  Jersey’s forward-thinking purse initiatives move to make the same sports thefts that have taken New York sports franchises in the past, Albany continues to refuse to make good upon a nine-year-old promise to assign an operator for the much-maligned, sadly hypothetical racino at Aqueduct.

The crowd gathered on the brick apron of Belmont Park, near the finish line of the third leg of the Triple Crown, was as diverse a group as any random population on a crowded city street. It was the eclectic mix that sums up racing life – all classes, clothing, countries. . . hotwalkers, grooms, riders, trainers, breeders. Urban and rural groups together, asking the government for the same thing – and shouldn’t have that made the decision easy? So why has the Aqueduct racino dragged on for nearly a decade, with no end in sight?

There were children in strollers, playing in the grass, bouncing balloons. There were well-dressed owners and trainers with their families. There were state legislators, community leaders, and racing association directors. Many of these people would only have come together because of the incredible diversity of the Thoroughbred industry. They represent in their diversity the many communities that they support.

As the Long Island Railroad trains rattled by beyond the backstretch and the airplanes slowly slid over on their approach to JFK, Matthew Veitch, county supervisor from Saratoga, reminded the crowd that the VLT issues were not strictly an urban, racing plant problem, “not an upstate, downstate problem,” but a whole state issue. Even as letting New York racing fade costs the state millions of dollars, he pointed out, it causes racing to lose both the purses and prestige that have made New York the horseman’s choice for a century and a half.

It also means that upstate, New York’s richest agribusiness is flailing. Joe McMahon (McMahon of Saratoga), spoke of mares bred declining by more than half. Yes, this means few New York-breds competing in three years. It also means that only half of the jobs in the breeding industry and the communities surrounding them will be available in the coming years. Diminished breeding means out of work grooms, blacksmiths, veterinarians, feed dealers, trainers, watchmen. Out-of-work people mean grocers, dry cleaners, restauranteurs, doctors, plumbers get less business. Children eat less, even go hungry. They fail at school. They drop out before they graduate. Generations slip under. When industries are allowed to fail, communities fail.

How many communities will fail if the Thoroughbred industry, from the upstate farms and the brief summers of hospitality at Saratoga, to New York City’s cast of thousands who support the city tracks, to the tens of thousands who depend on these workers’ patronage – how many communities will simply collapse?

All for want of a simple solution that was already promised to the horsemen and workers of New York? A relatively simple system, the development of a racino at a free-standing structure, complete with public transportation, in the nation’s most densely populated urban corridor – they managed it in Louisiana. It is shocking that they can’t manage something so basic in New York.

Rick Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemens’ Association, expressed the fear and frustration of the communities at risk best with his one simple solution: to put the governor and the parties responsible for selecting a VLT in a locked room and to not let them out until a deal has been agreed upon.

The theme of the day was community. The chant of the day was “Real people, real jobs.” The mood of the day was frustration, with an undercurrent of worry, even fear. Real lives, entire communities at stake. And nothing for it but to stand together in one place, and shout, and hope that someone in charge is listening. It isn’t a bad practice; revolutions have been started and been won this way for centuries. The only question is, how many will shout, how loudly, and will it be soon enough to save New York’s racing community and heritage?

Guardedly Optimistic, the Horses Trot On

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With a good response to the weekend’s open house, frequent editorials in the Orlando Sentinel, and local television news coverage, Freedom Ride can feel “guardedly optimistic” that they stand a chance of continuing their mission of helping Central Florida’s citizens with special needs.

This morning I spoke with Robin Baker, Freedom Ride’s Volunteer Coordinator. The more people that are paying attention and showing support, she says, the better the outlook for Freedom Ride is.

Many people who came to the Open House had no connection to horses at all. “People just came out to support us, from what they’d read.” People were generous with donations as well, and in promising to wear the free “Freedom Ride” hats and shirts to publicize and show support for the non-profit.

The tidy shedrow sits just a few miles from downtown Orlando.

Discussions are going on this week within City Hall that could determine the future plans for Trotters Park. In the meantime, the online petition is still collecting signatures, and the media continues to cover the mayor’s comedic waffling.

From mid-February, Scott Maxwell, the Sentinel’s political columnist, shares Orlando’s colorful history of inside deals and croneyism, illustrating with Orlando’s Safety Council:

For two decades, the council has operated in a city-owned building near Orlando Executive Airport, offering classes on everything from safe driving and workplace safety to victim awareness.

Then somebody else decided they wanted to use the Safety Council’s building. And that somebody happened to be a high-ranking city official: Deputy City Attorney Jody Litchford.

Apparently Litchford’s co-workers thought her idea was a dandy one. So they booted out a rent-paying tenant — eight years before the lease was up – for one that would move in rent-free for the first few years.

The deal was done with no fanfare, no announcements, no bidding – and losing rents costs the city about $200,000 over 3 years. A drop in the bucket for a city that is cheerfully laying off police, fire, and education professionals; the city insists that the space, now occupied by a charter school, will eventually turn a profit. Because so many charter schools are successful? Hmm.

Freedom Ride’s story isn’t new in Orlando, the City of Who You Know. But the decision to pick on the disabled is even lower-class than usual. As long as Central Florida, horsemen, parents, anyone who believes that people with special-needs deserve better than to be kicked out for non-existent ball field, maintain the pressure on the city, Freedom Ride can be a success story, instead of one more victim of Orlando’s exclusive City Hall.

Written by Natalie Keller Reinert

March 3, 2010 at 11:39 am

Orlando vs. Freedom Ride

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A horse that makes a difference.

When the city government starts picking on kids with special needs, you know the world’s gone off the deep end. In Orlando, which is of course the arbiter of all things progressive, a highly popular and centrally located therapeutic riding center – and the last vestiges of a historical equestrian park – are about to be wiped off the map. By a city desperate to cut costs, another sign of our desperate economy? No, actually, by a city that sometime in the future maybe might want to use the space for soccer fields.

Fortunately, the typical apathy of Central Floridians has not extended to allowing the city of Orlando to get away with this act. And while Mayor Buddy Dyer managed to get in some pot-shots at the organization while doing so, he did agree that they don’t necessarily maybe possibly have to go right the instant their current lease expired.

Freedom Ride struck back by welcoming the community to an open house over the weekend, showing off their beautiful facility, with its white painted fences, reminiscent of the old days when they weren’t occupants of the last training barn standing in the sprawling Ben White Raceway, once the southern hub of Standardbred training. More than 100 people each month are assisted here by fourteen horses and about one hundred volunteers. With its central location just a few miles off the main artery of Central Florida, I-4, participants from all over the area can easily reach the riding center, unlike many rural farms.

During the open house, business was proceeding as usual. Children were purposefully striding about in field boots, carrying saddles and bridles, checking the white board in the tack room for horse assignments. An older woman in an electric wheelchair motored about, patting the horses that came to their stall doors. Militant locals in breeches and blue jeans showed up to rail against the city politics and pledge their support and even tracts of land outside town that could be used for a new program. Parents showed up to volunteer or even to sign up their children for the program, which assists people with a multitude of special needs, including autism, multiple sclerosis, and cerebral palsy.

Artwork from the heart.

What truly made Freedom Ride stand out from a typical lesson barn, though, was the artwork. Arts and crafts is always an integral part of hippotherapy, and on display were the drawings and collages that children had made describing what the horses meant for them. “They help me come out of my shell” in a thought bubble above a smiling little girl on horseback, purposefully colored in crayon. “Titan” as a word used in a collage of how horses made a boy feel. With the devastating simplicity that children demonstrate on a regular basis, the case for Freedom Ride’s continued presence in Orlando should have been easily made.

All good causes have an online petition. You can find Freedom Ride’s here.

Written by Natalie Keller Reinert

March 2, 2010 at 5:12 pm