Racehorses and horse owners have become victims caught between opposing sides in a legal battle between VIGL Operations Inc. and Southland Gaming Inc., casino management companies vying for the right to exclusively operate video gaming machines in racetracks that have disintegrated since the 2017 hurricanes ravaged the territory.
VIGL Operations Inc. had reached an agreement with the government in 2016 to develop the territory’s two horse racing tracks, Randall “Doc” James Racetrack on St. Croix and Clinton E. Phipps Racetrack on St. Thomas. But in December 2020 the casino management company pulled itself from the agreement by not seeking a renewal or extension of the temporary license and promoter agreements.
The uncertainty of when the racing tracks will reopen coupled with the expenses associated with caring for a horse has led several horse owners to the gates of Golden Age Ranch, a nonprofit horse sanctuary that currently cares for 18 rescued horses – 16 of them racehorses.
“The horses at the racetrack’s predominant purpose is to race,” Golden Age Ranch board member Holly Fletcher said. “These races allow their owners to earn winnings which ultimately go toward that horse’s care. Unfortunately, the USVI racetracks have not been able to hold a race for several years now due to the 2017 hurricanes, as well as the delay of the VIGL deal.”
Owners face large costs that simply can’t be covered if the horse doesn’t race, and though “horse owners at the racetrack care about their horses,” many times “because of circumstances beyond the owner’s control,” the racehorses must be relinquished to the sanctuary for care, Fletcher said.
The time the racetracks have been down is equivalent to the length of a racehorse’s career. Fletcher said most racehorses can expect a career of three to four years, a career that can start as early as two years of age and will end before the age of eight. However, “a horse’s life expectancy is upward of 30 years.”
Golden Age Ranch board of directors Vice President Nikki Fernandez said, “The monthly cost of caring for a horse, in general, can vary depending on that horse’s health,” but at Golden Age Ranch it costs about $864 per month to take care of a single horse. Based on a horse’s average life expectancy and excluding a horse’s four-year racing career and minimum age requirement, an owner would pay nearly $250,000 in care for the remaining 24 years of its life.
Fernandez said the monthly costs for each horse cared for by the sanctuary “includes grain, hay, water, supplements, labor to take care of the horse, like picking their feet, grooming, feeding, attending to injuries, training, getting their feet trimmed by a farrier – who we have to pay for the airfare to come to the island, and freight costs to ship all the resources to the island.”
The rescued horses come to the sanctuary in many conditions, some needing more care than others.
“It is a very rare occasion we encounter a horse which has been purposefully neglected or abused,” Fletcher said, but it does happen.
One of the newest to the sanctuary is a rescued horse who Fletcher said is 400 pounds underweight and came with an undersized halter embedded in its face. To remove the halter, sanctuary associates had to cut the horse’s skin which had grown over the halter’s metal fixtures.
Stories like that prompted Fletcher to stress, “We would like to tell all of the horse owners on St. Thomas we are available to offer support if you need it. Please do not hesitate to contact us via our website with anything pertaining to keeping your horse happy and healthy. As of Dec. 31, 2020, the Virgin Islands Parks and Recreation have taken over control of the racetrack as they did before the 2016 VIGL deal. We are hopeful they will assist with the horse owners and their needs.”
The nonprofit relies heavily on grants and donations for its ranch orders, which consist of feed and supplies shipped from Florida to St. Thomas, via a cargo service, every 45 days.
Though the sanctuary is “pretty full,” Fletcher said, “At the ranch, we try to always have room for a wayward horse.”
The sanctuary has begun preparations in case any horses are surrendered to the ranch in the near future, Fletcher said. “We will always try to be available for an equine or owner in need while taking into consideration the conditions our current horses live in.”