After the Finish Line
USTA doubling down on Standardbred aftercare
by Mike Tanner, USTA Executive Vice President and CEO
Last month, I had the opportunity to discuss Standardbred aftercare as a panelist at the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program’s annual racing symposium in Tucson. It was fun—aftercare is something I never get tired of talking about—and I was joined on the stage by an array of hands-on, boots-on-the-ground folks, mostly from the Thoroughbred industry, who are doing the work necessary to rehome and retrain horses after their racing careers have finished. I listened and I learned.
When it was my turn to speak, I was happy to talk about several steps that the USTA has taken over the past year to advance Standardbred aftercare. You should know about them, too.
First, the USTA Board of Directors voted at its annual meeting in March 2022 to increase the fee on all transfers by $5, with the entirety of that hike being sent to the Standardbred Transition Alliance (STA). The STA is the gold standard of aftercare for the harness racing industry, having been established in 2018 to accredit, inspect and award grants to approved organizations that acquire, rehabilitate, train and rehome Standardbreds.
The organization is a nonprofit that carries a federal 501(c)(3) status, and last year accredited four aftercare groups. This year, that number will be eight. At an estimated rate of 33,000 transfers per year, the USTA expects to contribute nearly $120,000 to the STA on the industry’s behalf during the next fiscal year.
It’s a start, but it’s not enough, and I would encourage you to join me in personally sending a few dollars to the STA. It’s tax-deductible, and you can rest easy knowing that your money will wind up being put to great use by groups satisfying the STA’s stringent application criteria that emphasize both equine care and sound business practices. Check them out online at www.standardbredtransition.org.
I also spoke about the Standardbred Incentive Program (SIP). We launched SIP earlier this year, and its simplicity belies its potential. The initiative recognizes horses that participate in disciplines other than racing and provides awards for leading contestants.
Here’s how it works: Participants (either riders or drivers) who have a registered Standardbred enroll that horse in the program for free with the USTA. All that’s needed—besides the horse, of course—is a USTA membership and a valid email address. From that point onward, they submit placings via their USTA MyAccount whenever they take that horse to a show or on an
Points are accumulated based on the horse’s placing, the number of entries in the class, and whether the event is limited to Standardbreds or open to other breeds. At the end of the year, awards are given to the top performers in a variety of categories. There is also recognition for those that trail ride or drive outside of recognized competitions. By logging daily rides, participants can earn milestone awards.
The program was largely built by Jessica Schroeder, the USTA’s outreach and membership enrichment coordinator, who has done a remarkable job getting the platform off the ground. Over the course of just six months in 2022, 54 horses registered with SIP, and I expect that number to grow steadily in the new year.
What I love about SIP is that it highlights the Standardbred’s versatility, durability, intelligence and willing temperament. The breed can do so much more than just race or pull a buggy, and SIP horses repeatedly prove that.
While in Arizona, I was asked about freeze brands, which many believe make it easier to spot a Standardbred in a sales pen. To recap, the USTA, like the rest of the equine world, designated microchips as the primary means of identification for Standardbreds starting at the beginning of 2021. Freeze branding was made optional, which, in and of itself, was a rather unique decision; other than Standardbred Canada, no other major equine breed registry in North America provides that additional service.
Some members felt that the USTA should make the brands compulsory in addition to the microchip while others suggested that a microchip-only policy made sense. Considerable discussion—mostly online—ensued. In the end, the board elected to stand pat, mandating microchips for all horses while keeping freeze brands as an option. The additional directive? Make sure that everyone knows about the availability of freeze brands.
What happened then? Well, several major breeding farms pledged to freeze brand all their foals, and a few top owners publicly vowed to do the same with their yearling purchases. Others took their cue, and the USTA advertised the brands via web banners, announcements, and inclusion in other media and collateral pieces.
The numbers tell the tale. Through the end of November 2022, the USTA had administered 4,578 freeze brands during the year, compared to 2,438 horses through the same date in 2021. That’s an 88-percent increase year over year, and it’s hard to view that as anything other than a win.
Here’s to more wins—both on and off the track—in 2023, and to not losing sight of the social license that allows us to work with these marvelous animals. The race isn’t over at the finish line.