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Adoption center at Finger Lakes offers racehorses a chance for another home

FARMINGTON – Where racehorses go when their careers are over can be heartbreaking.

The story of Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby, has become a cautionary tale in the industry. The former Horse of the Year, sold to a breeder in Japan in 1989, died 13 years later in a Japanese slaughterhouse.

Ferdinand’s fate is a grotesque counterpoint to the retirement years of Cigar, whose 19 wins out of 33 starts and then-record earnings of $9.9 million made him a Hall of Fame horse. After the 1996 racing season, Cigar lived at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., where he was a favorite of visitors and received fine medical treatment. He died last October at age 24.

For most racehorses, life after the track plays out somewhere in between. Owners with enough resources may put their horses out to pasture, or they can find new owners interested in a show horse. Some become pets or are used for trail rides and such.

For animal lovers, the goal is to have the horses well-fed, well-exercised and well-treated.

That is the mission of Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Adoption Program, started at Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack in 2007 and funded largely by donations from Wanda Polisseni, an avid racing fan and horse owner whose late husband, Gene, was vice president of Paychex, and Delaware North, owner and operator of the Finger Lakes track. The program is housed on the racetrack grounds.

“Everybody is pushing for good ‘after care’ for the horses now,” said Julie Kisielewski, director for the Adoption Program.

With a waiting list for the 16 stalls in the program’s spacious and airy new barn, Kisielewski knows horse people appreciate the program. It finds homes for about 100 horses a year, with new owners paying relatively modest purchase prices for the thoroughbreds. Horses that for some reason stay around longer might even be “free to a good home,” Kisielewski said.

All the horses that come through are suitable for someone, she added.

“The horses all are vetted,” Kisielewski said. “They can’t be really sick or hurt. It’s not a retirement home. They have to be sound. Sometimes they just have a trait that makes them a good horse but a bad racehorse.”

There are some horses that don’t like to compete and other horses that sustain injuries that, while not debilitating, are career-ending.

Horses fresh from the track are given time to acclimate themselves to a quieter lifestyle. From the paddocks behind the center’s barn, they can still hear the races being called, but most adjust quickly, Kisielewski said.

From there they could go on to a new career in show jumping or barrel racing, a growing area for thoroughbreds. Or they could go for gentler uses, such as family horses for leisure rides or as pasture animals.