CARMA An Invaluable Resource for California Horsemen

More than 280 horses transitioned by CARMA - Feature

*Originally published on and written by Erin Shea*

The last time the Breeders' Cup was hosted in California at Del Mar in 2017, a gelding named Noble Nick ran a distant fourth in the Marathon Stakes Presented by TAA (G2).

Destin , the winner of that race, went off to stud like many others in that year's World Championships, while Noble Nick ran six more times before retiring with a bowed tendon in June 2018.

Through the help of the California Retirement Management Account, the son of Zensational found a home off the track. He first went to a layup facility for rehab before making his way to Win Place Home, a Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance-accredited organization near Santa Clarita, Calif., to start a new life.

The striking gray gelding caught the eye of Win Place Home founder CJ Marinaccio, who wasn't concerned with his injury.

"We got him Feb. 27 of this year, and he was already healed," she said. "I worked with him on the ground and did a lot of building up and groundwork. I started him on that path of training dressage, and he loved it so much.

"At the end of August, we put him out online. We had quite a few people who were interested, but one family in particular from San Francisco. They drove six hours to come and meet him. And it was a 15-year-old girl who wanted to do dressage. She fell in love with him. Now he's up near San Francisco, and she goes out there every day with him."

Noble Nick is just one of the more than 280 horses that have transitioned to off-track homes through the work of CARMA. Founded in 2007, CARMA has both a granting and placement program to assist Thoroughbreds retiring from racing. The placement program works with all 11 TAA-accredited organizations in the state of California and with select individual owners to place horses into a variety of homes—anything from sanctuary and equine-assisted therapy programs to show hunters and jumpers and western pleasure mounts.

"Working with them, you have an amazing support system. Everybody who is a part of that charity is 100% supportive, 100% wanting to do what's best for the horse, wanting to help you do what's best for the horse," Marinaccio said. "They are working all of the time for these horses, which is great because you're working all of the time for these horses."

But becoming a leader in on-track aftercare triage programs didn't happen overnight. The 501(c)(3) first existed as a granting body that awards money to organizations assisting retiring California racehorses. With funding from a 0.03% voluntary purse deduction (with Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields matching those contributions at their tracks), various fundraising events, and public contributions, CARMA has granted more than $4 million to those organizations since 2008. Then came the placement program, which has grown into a vital resource for California horsemen.

"We launched the placement program at the end of 2012 after about 18 months worth of planning," CARMA executive director Lucinda Lovitt said. "I think the reason it's successful is we took a very, very long time to implement it.

"What we really wanted to do was initially provide a service to the aftercare charities that were receiving our grants by doing this triage for them. So we had this funding source, and we said we want to dedicate that money to helping our aftercare charities with those first few months of expenses—the diagnostics, the rehab, the triage."

The first few months of taking a horse off the racetrack, especially one that is injured, can be a costly endeavor for aftercare nonprofits working with limited space and tight budgets. CARMA removes this burden by rehabbing and laying up horses before offering them to aftercare organizations. This time also allows CARMA representatives to evaluate a horse to see where it would be best suited.

"If we've got a horse that is suitable for something and we can find a home out in the greater equestrian world for it, we should because our organizations are saturated," Lovitt said. "And they are going to continue to be saturated because we have a fairly robust breeding program in this country. So we need our organizations to move along horses that they can, so we can take the ones that are coming down the road.

"I think that as the placement program has evolved, it's important to do that temperament assessment and the ability assessment so we know what we got and we're marketing them to the right folks."

CARMA's placement program continuously operates with its maximum of approximately 20 horses a month and retains a waiting list, something the team said makes racing connections plan more for aftercare.

"We have really worked hard to shift that thinking of somebody picking up the phone and saying they have a horse ready to retire and an hour later there's a van taking the horse away. That's not how this process should work. If you are practicing responsible racehorse retirement, you are thoughtful, mindful, and methodical in how you are retiring that horse," Lovitt said.

With the heightened attention on Santa Anita this year, CARMA and track representatives said supporting aftercare, especially the work of CARMA and TAA-accredited organizations, is especially important.

"The Stronach Group, Santa Anita, and Golden Gate are over-the-moon supportive of CARMA," said Candace Coder-Chew, CARMA president and Santa Anita's director of print and graphics. "They always have been, but since the (increased attention on Santa Anita) it is one of the most important things that we do as a racetrack. It helps us to put things in perspective.

"If you can say one positive thing that has happened throughout all of this is it has unified things. There is a lot more support for not only CARMA but for backstretch workers, too."

While The Stronach Group has been a longtime supporter of CARMA and other aftercare efforts, they have recognized there is an increased need for aftercare funding.

"We all have a responsibility to ensure racehorses have a home when they retire from the racetrack, and as that need increases, so has the contributions from The Stronach Group," said Aidan Butler, chief strategy officer of The Stronach Group. "CARMA's Placement Program has increased in popularity with the owners and trainers as the awareness of the program has increased, and they have seen their horses go on to have new careers or live out their days in approved happy homes."

To further connect the general public and racegoers with the importance of aftercare and the work of CARMA, Santa Anita has a new "equine enclosure" featuring retired Thoroughbred racehorses (including Hall of Famer Lava Man) and the popular Clydesdales. CARMA has a tent next to the enclosure to provide more information.

"People have an inherent love for the horse, and we felt there should be an area for fans to realize that love," Butler said. "We had famous retiree Lava Man available for photos, and he happily accepted carrots on opening weekend of this meet. He loved the attention, and the fans loved giving it to him.

"The CARMA tent situated next to the pens is staffed with an experienced horse person who answers questions about aftercare and helps fans learn how to pet and feed carrots to our equine ambassadors. Many people, both children and adults, have never actually touched a horse before, and this is truly a perfect opportunity to enlighten them with that fantastic experience."

Another piece of the puzzle is allowing aftercare nonprofits to show what off-track Thoroughbreds are capable of. Santa Anita recently hosted an Aftercare Day Oct. 27, featuring demonstrations from adopted OTTBs.

CARMA youth ambassador Amanda Gomez, daughter of the late Garrett Gomez, rides Been in Denile during Aftercare Day
"Having places like ours and other charities where horses can go and be retrained for other careers is so important because it allows the public in general to know that these horses are not 'crazy racehorses' but are striving members of the equine society and do amazing jobs," Marinaccio said.

"Making sure that there are people and charities like us, and that people recognize us and donate and help us help these horses, it allows us to be able to save and help as many horses as we can, which is everybody's goal."