The news that 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand likely met his doom in a Japanese slaughterhouse shocked the U.S. racing industry, but it didn't come as a surprise to everyone. Kim Zito, the wife of trainer Nick Zito, recently joined an effort to buy back several American stallions from Turkey, including Strike the Gold and Sea Hero, the Derby winners in '91 and '93, respectively. "I'm not aware of any thoroughbred retirement facilities in Turkey," she says, "and when I think of what happened in Japan, it makes me want to throw up."
Hundreds of top American thoroughbreds are standing stud overseas, including Derby winners War Emblem ('02) and Charismatic ('99), who are in Japan, and Alysheba ('87), who is in Saudi Arabia. Grave concerns about the safety of horses abroad surfaced in 1997, when 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Exceller was slaughtered in Sweden. Exceller's death prompted Kentucky breeders Arthur and Staci Hancock to go to Germany and buy back underper-forming sire Gato Del Sol, the '82 Derby winner and a product of the couple's Stone Farm. (Gato now grazes there.)
Exceller's death also generated increased support for several organizations dedicated to keeping memorable horses alive. The most prominent group, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, raises close to $2 million a year in donations to place thousands of former racehorses on farms throughout the country. Most of them might otherwise have been among the 60,000 horses—including thousands of thoroughbreds—killed each year for glue and pet food.
Racing's greatest horses are treated well in the U.S. Some, such as Secretariat and Seattle Slew, even get ceremonious burials. Old Friends, the fledgling group that Kim Zito works with, is hoping to put Sea Hero and Strike the Gold on a farm with other top thoroughbreds and attract tourists. Yet as long as foreign breeders are paying, some top horses will continue to go abroad—War Emblem, for example, was bought for $17 million last year. Nick Zito is among the growing number who advocate inserting a clause into sales contracts that would give U.S. owners the right to buy back a stallion when his breeding days are over. "It's like letting Babe Ruth die on the Bowery," he says of Ferdinand. "We don't want to insult anyone's culture, but we want them to know how important these horses are to us."