Hundreds, even thousands, of thoroughbred horses that don't win races are sent to be butchered for the dinner tables of Europe - partly because their owners can't afford to keep them.

NZ Thoroughbred Racing says the fates of about 1000 horses a year are unknown, but transporters say the abattoir business is booming.

Now, the racing organisation is considering supporting a new charity, Thoroughbreds Continued, that seeks to find new homes for retired racehorses, in order to save them from the knacker's yard.

As part of a three-month investigation, the Herald on Sunday has spoken to six transport operators who truck thoroughbreds to the Clover Export Ltd abattoir in Gore. Clover is the only licensed meatworks exporting horse meat for human consumption.


Some operators are taking thoroughbreds all the way from Waikato to Southland in cattle trucks shared with sheep and goats. The trips can take days or weeks with stopovers in Tirau, Foxton, Bulls or Christchurch.

Bernie Hutton, a South Island-based horse transporter for 40 years, said he and others in the trade had been taking more thoroughbreds to Gore than ever before.

"Yes, they are often slaughtered very young due to the nature of the industry - but the other side of that is that young thoroughbreds do provide excellent meat for export," he said. "And frankly, the way some of them are neglected, it seems a better fate for them."

"In the last three months I've transported more thoroughbreds to Clover than I had done in three years."

North Island operator Russell Curtin said mum-and-dad racehorse owners had discovered they could no longer afford to feed and stable horses that weren't winning races, and so they were giving them away as horse meat.

"You know, I'm glad to hear someone else talk about that," Curtin said. "Thoroughbreds used to be in the minority, but the 'giveaways' on thoroughbreds in the last three to six months is staggering. It's made me wonder what's going on."

A South Island stockman, who asked to not be named, said three out of every five horses he took to Clover this year were thoroughbreds, and he believed the recession was a factor.

"But let's not forget that the reason some owners and trainers choose the road to Gore rather than selling on or re-homing, is that they've shelled out $10,000, $20,000 or $30,000 on a young horse, trying in vain to get it to be a winner. They don't want anyone else to get it later and reap the rewards."