Tucked away on James Madison’s picturesque Montpelier, there is a community of award-winning retired athletes living out their days together in relative harmony. When I met these athletes, there was no crowd of admirers. And on a hot, sunny day, even the athletes themselves were out of sight, save for the oldest, who relaxes alone in front of a box fan.
While a life of quiet seclusion might be to their liking, their caretakers would prefer more respect and recognition for these prized athletes. They want people to look after them and help ensure a comfortable future till the end of their days. That’s why they created the Virginia Thoroughbred Project, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to the care of thoroughbreds retired from the sport of horse racing.
While many human athletes maintain celebrity status even after their days on the court or field are over, thoroughbreds are rarely acknowledged, despite years of hard work. Most owners want their retirees to be cared for, but many don’t have the means to provide that care. Others are less concerned, sometimes having them slaughtered.
VTP’s mission is to provide excellent aftercare to as many racehorses as it can, in recognition of the time and effort the animals devoted to their sport. Currently, that means caring for 41 senior thoroughbreds. The day-to-day responsibility falls mainly on the shoulders of Crystal Wever, the VTP’s farm manager, with the help of a weekend farm manager and a groundskeeper. Wever’s commitment and respect for the horses is clear. “They all deserve dignified retirements,” she says.
The horses are checked over twice each day, with particular attention paid to their hooves and eyes—that’s 164 hooves and 82 eyes. Paying this level of attention has led Wever to recognize the idiosyncrasies of each horse. Some of them have cliques and competitive streaks. They fight over snacks and have crushes. “It’s like high school,” she says. Even so, “for the most part, they all get along. Everyone here is pretty personable.” Sue Hart, chair of the VTP board of directors, notes that “thoroughbreds are sensitive to people”; they are attuned to human emotion.
Keeping horses healthy doesn’t come cheap. It costs an average of $5,000 to take care of one horse per year—a total of about $205,000. “And that’s nothing fancy,” says Hart, “It’s basic farrier and vet care, being checked twice a day, making sure that they are healthy and pasture sound.” Pasture sound means that even if the horses are injured to the point that they cannot be ridden, they are still healthy enough to take care of themselves day-to-day.
In addition to the approximately 2,600 acres that make up Montpelier’s grounds, the VTP is responsible for the 150 acres where the horses reside, including the barns, some of which are more than 100 years old. Fences must be mended, farm equipment has to be maintained, and the fields always need mowing. It’s truly a labor of love for the small crew that makes it their daily work.
While the VTP is a new organization, the staff and board members have been involved in the care of thoroughbreds for the past 16 years. Until recently, they worked under the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, a national agency based in New York. When the lease between Montpelier and TRF was close to expiring, and the horses would have to be moved, the local board members worked with Montpelier and a private contributor to transition to an independent organization. This ensures that the horses, some of whom are more than 20 years old, remain on the estate’s grounds.
“These horses have been here for years,” says Hart. “To move these old guys is very traumatic. That was one of our main concerns.” The Virginia Thoroughbred Project became incorporated and financially independent from the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation in the winter of 2019. Hart emphasizes the important role that Montpelier played in this transition: “Montpelier has been really helpful to us. It’s been a better thing for all involved.”
As the VTP looks toward the future, it hopes to add new horses to the herd in 2021. “A small number of thoroughbreds that are bred for racing are successful, so that leaves a lot that are just ordinary horses,” says Hart. “Some can be rehabbed to do other things like show jumping, dressage, and trail riding.” Most of the horses in VTP’s care cannot be rehabbed. “These are unwanted animals,” she adds. With many racetracks closing this spring due to COVID-19, and owners who may no longer have the resources to maintain their thoroughbreds, there is the possibility that even more horses will need care.
For now, tours of the farm are permitted by appointment only. Once it is safe, VTP plans to open its doors to the community and hold future events, sharing its love of horses with everyone. —Laura Drummond