Retired horses finding new life
Since acquiring her first thoroughbred in 1985, Sandy Hamm Martini has been on a mission to help off-the-track horses get a second chance.
A former employee of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, Martini, of Fayetteville, has run Sandy Hamm Horses LLC since 1986.
“I was able to rehome my first thoroughbred in somewhere around ’88-’89 and that was the beginning,” she said. “I’ve been doing it ever since. I don’t know how many hundreds — more than hundreds. I’ve never stopped.”
According to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, a nonprofit that encourages rehoming, 15,500 thoroughbreds have been retrained, rehomed, or retired by accredited organizations, since 2012. By comparison, the Jockey Club, the breed registry for North America, was expecting a registered foal crop of 18,000 for the 2024 season.
Martini’s devotion to thoroughbreds started in the early 1980s, when she went to work for Kathi Jogan, who is now an animal science instructor for the Division of Agriculture and the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences. At the time, Jogan was managing a large thoroughbred operation.
“I’ve had all different types of horses in my years and thoroughbreds are the ones I always migrate to,” Martini said. “They’re always the ones that I keep on my farm, that I personally like to ride.
“I want to say the word majestic,” she said. “They’re animals who are bred to know what they’re supposed to do and that is run fast and long and hard and they’re complicated. They’re very technical. They’re extremely sensitive to humans.”
“I don’t think thoroughbreds ever had a bad reputation. I think they were always misunderstood,” Martini said.
For riders wanting an athletic horse before the rise of warmblood breeds such as Hanoverians and Trakehners in the United States, “thoroughbreds were what you could get your hands on,” she said.
Some of the misunderstanding might have come from the lack of a sound transition from the hubbub of the racing life to a more domestic one. Making that transition is what Martini does for off-the-track thoroughbreds.
“If I pick them up directly from the racetrack, they come here and they learn to be a horse again,” she said. “They’re coming from a situation where they’ve been in a stall 24/7 — likely for years — with not much more than a small turnout in a small area… always watched by a human and always handled, with constant human attention.”
Once they get to Martini’s farm, “they learn how to socialize. They learn how to take a deep breath and eat grass and hang around and do what regular horses do every day. Then they tell me when they’re ready to start training,” she said. “And when I feel like they’re ready, we start doing stuff.”
And thoroughbreds have proven themselves capable in many jobs. The Retired Racehorse Project showcases the talents of off-track thoroughbreds (OTTBs) through its “Thoroughbred Makeover” competition, which features 10 disciplines including barrel racing, ranch work, dressage and polo.
Martini’s own thoroughbreds have a second career that’s as far from the racetrack as can be.
“I prefer cross-country riding. Not cross-country showing, but coyote chasing. I started doing that in the early ’90s and that is my love, riding wide open fields through the Ozark mountains, jumping fences.”
Her current ride is Altito, a handsome bay son of Bernardini. He sold at a 2015 yearling auction for $270,000 and went on to tally 11 wins from 59 starts, earning $323,254. Martini picked Altito up from Oaklawn a few weeks after his final race.
“Most ex-racers love to gallop cross country, as do many humans,” Martini said.
At the end of October, Martini had 19 horses on her farm seeking homes — about eight more than she was comfortable with. Many of those horses began their rehoming trip to Fayetteville with a call from a racehorse trainer.
“I pick up a lot of horses at Hot Springs, just because I’m an Arkansas girl and I want to help those Arkansas horses,” she said, adding she also works frequently in Louisiana, Oklahoma and Kentucky.
Once they’re ready for a new home, Martini’s many industry connections help.
“Over the decades I’ve had the most luck with relationships, so I reach out to my contacts,” she said. “I do direct mail, emails and phone calls and I work with some select trainers that I know who pride themselves on where the horses end up going — and that seems to work the best for me.”
Industry support for these former racehorses is critical.
“One of the things that we need to be careful of as an equine industry is supporting each other,” said Michelle Kibler, an associate professor at Illinois State University. “We need to be united in that, and celebrate our differences and the different things that the horse can do.”
A key supporter for efforts to rehome OTTBs is the Jockey Club.
“It may look like they’ve just now started to do work on this, but they always have and they just now are very public with this retired racehorse program that they’ve got going on — which is a huge success,” Martini said. “The Jockey Club has always done a really good job.”
The Jockey Club, the Breeders’ Cup and Keeneland Association provided seed money for the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.
The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance said that since 2012, it has granted more than $28.1 million to accredited aftercare organizations that aid in rehoming retired racers.
Earlier this year, The Jockey Club also announced efforts to improve traceability of former racehorses.
“It’s the Sport of Kings. It costs a lot of money to be in training. It costs a lot of money to buy,” Martini said. “You’re going to have a few bad ones, but that’s not the majority.”
“There’s still more to do. There’s always going to be more to do,” she said.
According to a 2017 report from the American Horse Council, the horse industry makes a $122 billion impact in the United States, including both direct effects such as wages, and indirect effects which includes spending by the industry and its employees. According to Twinspires.com, horse racing and breeding alone have a $30 million impact nationwide.
On Dec. 9, fans attending Oaklawn Park could support the Arkansas Thoroughbred Retirement and Rehabilitation Foundation by making a $20 donation and taking home a horse plush toy.
To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact a local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.uada.edu. Follow the agency on X and Instagram at @AR_Extension.
Mary Hightower is with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.