Times are tough in the New Zealand racing industry and when thoroughbreds don’t perform, their days are numbered. They are being stacked into cattle trucks for the long trip down to Gore, where a little-known abattoir slaughters them for the dinner tables of Europe. Sally Webster investigates the Sport of Kings and its tawdry little secret
Soliloquy Lodge is on the flat roads of Karaka. It lies just south of the mangrove-lined Manukau Harbour. It's a place where there just seems to be a lot of sky.
The neat ranch fences open up to a winding grey gravel driveway, spare and clean. A few mares graze next to a pond, near one of three wooden barns. David Moore's family has been working on this land since before World War II. His wife Angenita grew up on a farm in Europe. They know and love the thoroughbred horses they breed and race.
They have high hopes for every foal born. Could this one be the next Culminate, the brown mare who won them more than $800,000 on the course? Or the next Russian Hero, their famous bay stallion?
"We give the young horses the best feed and care, good pasture, and time to grow good muscle and develop soundly," Angenita says. "It's like a nursery here - we're producing athletes."
So why, then, was a horse bearing the "SL 7/8" brand photographed by animal welfare activists at a stockyard in Christchurch, bound by cattle truck for the knackers in Gore? A knacker that is named, perversely, Clover Export Ltd.
When breeders like the Moores talk of putting a horse to clover, they never meant having it slaughtered with a bolt between the eyes, butchered, frozen and shipped to Belgium or Russia for the restaurant trade.
"No, no," Angenita exclaims, turning to her husband in shock "They don't do that in NewZealand."
But the pastoral idyll of a quiet retirement for New Zealand thoroughbreds is no longer, as cash-strapped owners - often mum-and-dad investors or syndicates - discover they can no longer afford to keep underperforming horses. And with a waning demand for hot-blooded former racehorses, the grim road trip to Gore is becoming increasingly common.
Eventually, David 'fesses up. Filly 7/8 was born at Soliloquy as the 7th foal in 2008. She was sired by Russian Hero, out of broodmare mum Heatherton, and she looked fine as a baby. But as she matured, it became clear her legs were "bent".
"So we kept her for more than two years to see if she would mature, if the legs would straighten," he says. "And when it was clear she wouldn't improve, we tried to get some trainers to take her. But the reality is that no one wants a racehorse like that, unfortunately.
"The feed and stable bills keep coming in and this becomes too expensive to support really . . . So we sold her directly from here to Clover." He hadn't realised Clover was exporting the meat for human consumption; he thought it was for pet food. He recalls, they were paid "about a couple of hundred bucks".
The 3-year-old never raced, and so she was never named. Filly 7/8 was the horse with no name.
Breeders, trainers, truckies and the abattoir itself - none of them like talking about the horse meat trade.
It's perfectly legal: according to Statistics NZ, New Zealand earned $2.27 million last year from the export of horse meat for human consumption. With 1962 horses slaughtered in 2011, that places a value of more than $1100 on each horse head.
But there have been mishaps. In 2004, agriculture ministry officials destroyedmore than 20 horses in Clover's holding paddocks, after delays awaiting renewal of the abattoir's licence left them in poor condition. Then, last year, Christchurch animal rights activists tried to "rescue" 20 horses en route to the abattoir.
According to one source in Gore, they've had horse-lovers converge on the emptied paddock to bless the dead horses' spirits, and they've had environmentalists attacking the horse truck as it approaches the plant.
Mostly, the reason the thoroughbred industry doesn't like talking about it is because the trade is unsavoury - at least to the tastes of many New Zealanders. The Russians, Belgians, Dutch and Swiss who bought our horse meat last year find it perfectly palatable. And in 2009, journalists revealed a South Auckland petfood plant selling horse meat under the table to members of the Tongan community, for human consumption.
At the award-winning Antoine's French restaurant in the affluent Auckland neighbourhood of Parnell, chef Tony Astle says hewould consider serving horse meat if he could find a legitimate supplier - but most approaches were "very dubious" and he "wouldn't toucht hem with a 40ft barge pole".
He would need to be persuaded there was demand for horse meat. "Horse meat is very dark and much more like game," Astle says. "It has a strong flavour with a tendency to be tough and these days, it's even going out of fashion in France.
"A lot of my customers are horsey people-jockeys and the like. Apparently they talk to their horses, and the horses understand what they're saying. They love them - we all do, don't we? They are said to be intelligent animals, and I believe it - you only have to look into their eyes."
The challenge for owners is that horseracing isn't a terribly healthy business. It has been hit hard by the recession and the stakes offered to winners have dropped. In 2008/09, the net stakes paid by NZ Thoroughbred Racing to owners climbed to a peak of $54.6m.
That dropped to $45.6m in 2009/10, then just $43.9m last year. But keeping a horse is an expensive business. Agistment - rearing and educating a thoroughbred - can be more than $10,000 in the first year, not counting food and shelter costs. In the second year, $12,000 to $18,000 is typical; in the third year, it can soar to $28,000 plus costs.
Then there are the actual racing costs: at one recent meet, $50 to nominate a horse for a race, $258.75 on acceptance, the standard jockey fee of $125, and transport there and back. Breeders say you can't raise a Melbourne Cup winner on a shoestring - and that is a bitter pill for some owners.
John Galvin, from syndicated racing company Fortuna Racing, says fewer payouts mean smaller race fields, fewer mares being serviced, more horses sent to the slaughterhouse. It is, he says, a vicious circle.
He recalls the golden days of racing, when families came to the races and spentmoney on the course; now, he says, there are so many other distractions and entertainment options that racing clubs are in trouble.
But there is one sure way to recoup money: horse meat prices have been rising steadily, from US$1518.36 per tonne in 2007 to US$1322.7 in 2008 and US$1434.2 in 2009.
The arithmetic is grim and, for many thoroughbreds, inescapable. When filly 7/8 was picked up from Soliloquy Lodge, she would have been trucked down State Highway 1 through the rolling hills and rich pastures of the Waikato.
More horses were picked up bearing the brands of Matamata's 202ha Mapperley Stud and 162ha Grande Vue Lodge - though the owners of those two stud farms say they did not sell the horses to Clover. It is likely they had been sold and onsold two or three times before the final owner decided they were no longer good investments.
Mapperley's Simms Davison says he is unaware of the slaughter of horses for human consumption - but some owners come in without the cash and can't afford the responsibility. Thoroughbreds cost a lot to feed. "They're one of the hardest types of horses to keep weight on and can lose condition easily if not given the right feed."
Across the paddocks at GrandeVue, with crystal clear views of the Kaimais, owner Eve Holmes is disappointed but not surprised to learn that one of "Horse meat is very dark and tends to to be tough ... it's going out of fashion even in France."
Tony Astle, restaurateur and chef dad breeders can't all afford to keep them when they're getting no return on their investment." Several different transport operators collect horses from around the North Island, and truck them down to Gore. One is Tulloch Transport, run by former Mataura mayor and United Future party president Ian "Inky" Tulloch.
Tulloch acknowledges the thoroughbreds do sometimes travel with sheep and smaller animals on a lower deck, but says they are adequately cared for, fed and watered at every stop - a holding yard in Tirau, a few days in Foxton, before being ferried across the Cook Strait, driven through Blenheim and unloaded in Christchurch. Another operator, until recently, was truckie Russell Curtin.
"These mum-and-dad or backyard breeders can't buy the better bloodlines, so they do take a punt on the lesser ones," Curtin says.
"But then you've got people with high hopes and horses that just aren't going to win. While I don't go down to Clover any more myself, I've ended up with a situation where I'm doing my usual transporting thoroughbreds to races for clients, but I've picked up 10 thoroughbreds to take to AC Petfoods [in the Waikato] alone in the past two months for slaughter. I also picked up three one Sunday recently with badly ripped legs, then had a call to get two from Tirau and then I went on to Takanini to get another three.
"If you're going to sell a horse for slaughter you can choose to let it go for pet food or human consumption," he explains. "If you sell it to Clover the horse is generally going to travel a long way over possibly weeks." Curtin says it would cost him nearly $3000 to truck 10 horses down to Gore - about $270 per horse.
"We don't make specific journeys down to Gore. We'll make our money because we're already transporting other racehorses round the country, and we load the ones destined for Clover as we go. So sometimes you have horses waiting in the en-route yards until there are enough horses to continue further down right to Gore."
Different firms stop over at yards in Tirau, Bulls, Foxton and Guys Rd in Christchurch - where animal rights activist Nikki Subritzky called the police and SPCA to inspect horses from a Tulloch truck last year. She alleged sick or injured horses were sharing cattle trucks with sheep, cattle, llamas and goats. After they were inspected, all but one were allowed to continue the final seven-hour leg of the trip downto Gore.
The MAF Transport Code has guidelines for the safe and humane carriage of horses, imposing clear obligations under animal welfare legislation.
Tulloch says he has had complaints, but he can vouch for the welfare of the "10 or so" horses his company takes to Clover each week. "We're aware that there is emotion surrounding transporting horses."
Nationwide Transport owner Alan Taylor says the welfare and comfort of the horses he transports to Gore is paramount.
"We transport them down there in the same vehicles that we take horses to the races in. We treat them with the same respect as if they were still a million-dollar racehorse. We just see that we're taking them to a different kind of destination. Believe me, it's a better place for some of those horses, given the condition you find them in. "And at the end of the day it's business. We're in the business of horse transport and this is one of the jobs we do."
By the time the horses get to Clover, says the source in Gore, 95 per cent are still in good condition. "We get once expensive racehorses through - but as successful as they were? "Once the stallions start firing blanks, they're too expensive to keep," he says. "A small percentage of horses are in very poor condition and it's always a shock to see how they have been left to die. Here we kill them very humanely."
One South Island truckie, who asked to not be named, says he's taken a huge number of thoroughbreds to Clover, some young, some old. Some are trucked down by cattle stock drivers, he says, who have no experience of horses and actually "don't give a shit, they don't care if they're kicking while in transport and injuring others around them."
The owners may get only a couple of hundred dollars selling the horse to Clover but, he says, the alternative is paying a $100 council fee and hiring a $200 digger to dig a hole, then paying a vet $100 to put the horse down. "A lot of those thoroughbreds are not suitable for re-homing," he insists.
"If a young girl gets it from a trainer, takes it home and it bolts, who is responsible?" He claims Clover Export Ltd is actually doing the horse industry a service: "It's a godsend that horses can actually go to Clover rather than be left to waste in a paddock.
"I for one like to make that last journey as comfortable and familiar as possible. I make sure my horses are in a pen or paddock together, so they are 'amongst friends' they've travelled with."
At Clover Export, the numbers of horses in the holding paddock builds up through the week, until Thursday. Thursday is kill day.
The horses are slaughtered, under the supervision of a MAF inspector, with a bolt between the eyes. A thoroughbred weighs 450kg to 600kg-and about a third of that can be butchered for human consumption. A mixture of on-the-bone and off-the-bone cuts are frozen, then shipped out of Port Otago. The shipments go to Western Europe and Russia, sometimes viaQueensland. This is because Clover is owned by Queensland- based Meramist Pty Ltd, which in turn is owned by Belgian meat giant Benimpex Nv.
Not that they're commenting, as Clover managing director Mike Eathorne repeatedly and emphatically advised by email.
In Ranst, Belgium, Benimpex boss Christine Nauwelaers did not even return calls. Benimpex, trading under the name Multimeat, sells everything from smallgoods to bison meat. It's a big player in a hungry world that consumes up to 5 million horses a year.
Over the past 10 years Belgium has imported more than 1000 tonnes of New Zealand horse meat to satisfy its national appetite.
At 'T Peerd (The Horse) restaurant in Antwerp, under the rustic prints of draught horses that line the walls, owner M. De Ley was just shutting up shop for the night when the Herald on Sunday called.
De Ley explains that he sells horse meat imported from an Australian company. Benimpex sells it to wholesaler Metro, which onsells it to the restaurants. "My favourite and most popular cut is fillet steak - the best part of the body," he says. "I get this flown in from the wholesaler fresh, not frozen though."
While De Ley works the front of house, his wife is cooking the horse meat out back in the kitchen. There's the entree, a carpaccio of horse fillet, with celery, truffle oil and pecorino cheese. Or there's the showpiece Rossini fillet with sauteed Strasbourg foie gras. "But," says De Ley, "my favourite dish is simple - horsesteak Crosse & Blackwell."
Apparently, the Crosse & Blackwell English pickle perfectly complements the horse fillet. "The sourness of the pickle lifts the horsemeat, you see-a meat that is pretty sweet compared to others."
The horse on Belgian tables has come a long way from the stud farms of Karaka and theWaikato. And back at GrandeVue Lodge near Matamata, Eve Holmes said she, for one, wouldn't eat the meat - pickle or no pickle.
"But I have an emotional connection with horses so I don't see them that way," she says. "I'd have to be pretty hungry to eat horse meat."