Starting the Standardbred Retirement Foundation

by Allison Conte

Photo by Ken Weingartner

Photo by Ken Weingartner

How did you (Judy Bokman) and Paula Campbell decide to start the Standardbred Retirement Foundation?

We found out that when these horses are done the dealers, they come and take these horses and what really happens is they go through livestock auction. That’s, I don’ t know, it’s outrageous. To have this go on is almost barbaric (after they give you all they have on the track).

What were the early days like, from the ground, up?

I was up in Goshen at that time. We were taking horses off of the track at Monticello. Those horses had a lot of injuries and it was very concerning but we were able to find them homes where they wouldn’t be used very much. We did have to put quite a few of them down. The trainers, you know we took horses with broken bones. The trainers would say, “Oh he’ll be fine if he rests, he’ll want to race again, he’s got a lot of heart.” So we would have a vet look at the horse and he would say, you know it’s inhumane to keep this horse alive. And you know him (husband Dr. Stephen Bokman), he doesn’t put anything down unless he really, really has to. So there were some horses that had to be humanely euthanized. They were so lame and crippled.

One of the things we had to overcome was the ignorance first. That these horses were going to be fine after a period of rest. And the ignorance that they were all getting good homes and that they were willing to rest a horse that was injured and then use it. There’s just so many horses, way too many horses, more than there are for any needs.

We just started doing some fundraisers. I was down at the Meadowlands and Paula and I started a relationship with the Meadowlands back then where they did a very large fundraiser for us to get us started. We struggled because people just were not ready for this. It was too far-fetched for them. It still is a little bit, but people now are starting to realize that it’s very inhumane what we do with these animals when they’re done racing.

Was there a particular horse that inspired this mission for you?

I only owned one racehorse; he was a big black horse. I kept him until he was 33 and his teeth wore out and he had to be put at peace. He was at the barn in Goshen one day and some Amish men were looking at him, and I was ignorant back then. And they’re hovering around the stall looking at my big black horse, and I couldn’t understand what was going on, but when I started to ask, that’s when I realized that what was going on with these horses was real. That the dealers are buying them and there’s just too many horses and what was really going on.

He inspired me and many horses along the way pick up your spirits because very often we’re faced with situations that really can damper how we feel about things.

We get very down when we don’t get the support we need, when we get a horse that’s so crippled, when we have to put a horse down. That’s a very difficult thing to deal with because we know darn well where they’re going to go. And there’s a couple in there that made a lot of money.

How did you go about initially trying to place these horses in homes?

We were very fortunate in the beginning because it’s very rare, but one horse that we put in a home, actually it was the first horse, he was owned by Bill up in Monticello and it was a stallion, and he went to a Colonel in Port Jefferson, NY and they wouldn’t geld him. I said, “You know you really have to geld this horse.” He said, “Oh no I’m not gonna geld him.” I was like, oh God, but I didn’t pressure him and he had this horse until he died, and just within days of the owner, the Colonel, passing away so did the horse.

It’s unusual to find someone to keep a horse until they die. The times are different now, and you know the average home per Standardbred is less than four years before he needs another home. I don’t know there are some horses that are in homes forever and there are some horses that have eight homes. We follow them up and if we didn’t follow up where would they be all over again? Back at risk.

In the last few years SRF has started putting training into the horses before adopting them out, were you surprised at how versatile Standardbreds are?

Initially, many years ago, yeah, when I first started to see what they can do. I mean, I knew that you could get on them and ride them around the track, which the first time I did that even I was surprised. But when we started to see what they can do, because their temperament is just so super, it was surprising. They’re adopted in every single discipline. They’re in therapeutic riding programs, they’re with American Color Guard. They served as patrol horses for the Super Bowl last year, you could see them lined up right in front of Giant’s Stadium and they probably came from right next door at the Meadowlands. It’s amazing.

My husband used to take Nadala, the one horse and he would play polo with him! They all thought he was a warm-blood. (Laughs) I’m not kidding, at the old Cedar Lakes Stud, where Escape Artist stood, we were living up there, and they were playing polo out there quite a bit. We took Nadala in the ring and Steve just played polo with him. We never trained him to play polo, and they all thought he was a warm-blood it was great.

Would you say that the follow-up is the big difference between your group and a lot of other organizations?

That’s it and that’s the reason. A lot of people say, “Oh you’re the same, or similar,” but no, we’re totally different. We right off the bat said, “If you can’t keep and take care of the horse, you have to give them back to us.”

In the very early stages we didn’t have many people that were doing that. As time went on, people were giving them back, and it was a little surprising. It wasn’t hugely surprising, but it was a little surprising that they didn’t make a commitment for life. But, you know, what do you do when people lose their jobs or get divorced?

When was the first time you started to feel really accomplished with SRF?

That’s a very hard answer to give because it’s a double edged sword. There are days you feel accomplished because we’ve really done a lot, but then I kind of feel like we’ve accomplished nothing. Because this industry is still not behind their horses, and I’m not saying behind SRF, they’re still not behind their horses, which is very sad, but on the other hand when you look into a horse’s eyes and they’re getting on a trailer to go with the mounted police in Newark or you know, with a young girl who in a matter of two months has the horse jumping, then you feel a sense of accomplishment.

If there was a tiny amount coming from every aspect from the time the horse is bred to the time the horse is racing, there’s so many ways to make it work, but it’s very hard in this industry to get everybody in this industry to agree on something. It’s the people that can make these decisions that can put it together.

Let’s get an actuary in here and figure out how many horses need homes every year and how many might come back and then what would it cost to do this. And then based on what it costs to do, see where you can get the money from. It’s really the industry that should be doing this. It shouldn’t be a charity.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the SRF today?

You know, when I first saw that question my answer was: tomorrow. That’s all I could think, it’s tomorrow. It’s because financially there is nothing to count on for tomorrow, so that we can continue.

We go from year-to-year and our endowment is embarrassing. I mean, there’s really an endowment that raises $250 a year. So tomorrow is my answer, and mostly it’s because financially, we never know where we’re going to be.

What’s your favorite thing about being part of the SRF?

When we get support behind us, for instance our golf outing. It’s very well attended and it feels good to know that these people care enough to do something.

It’s when someone runs a fundraiser on their own and calls and says, “You know what, we’re going to do a fundraiser.” This man, George Dennis, completely on his own we never called, asked, nothing. He just called one day and said, “I’m going to do this golf outing down here and give the funds to SRF. That’s something that makes me smile.” 

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