As all eyes in world of horse racing turn this weekend to the Breeders' Cup World Championship, the richest single day in sports, a York couple is reminded once again of the tragic side of breeding thoroughbreds.
Jo and Tommy Huffstetler rescued their first horse after getting caught up in the story of Barbaro.
The 2006 Kentucky Derby winner struggled through an eight-month battle to recover from a leg injury that caused the colt to breakdown at the Preakness in May of 2006. The couple watched the ordeal unfold in the news, hoping the resilient horse would pull through.
But when Barbaro was put down on Jan. 29, 2007, Jo Huffstetler let out a sigh of despair. The story opened her eyes and she began investigating the treatment of horses, specifically nurse mare foals.
"The horse racing industry is killing these horses," she said. "They're literally letting them die or killing them unless they're rescued in order for race horses to nurse off their mothers and survive."
When a thoroughbred is born, its mother is immediately sent elsewhere for further breeding. The new thoroughbred is tended to by a nurse mare, whose sole purpose is providing milk to future championship race horses.
But to come into milk, nurse mares must have their own foals. These foals are historically killed because it's hard to raise them, according to Last Chance Corral, a foal rescue in Athens, Ohio.
"When you see what they're doing, as a real horseman, it just breaks your heart," Tommy said. "They're just discarded."
When notified of the process, Jo and Tommy -- animal lovers with three horses, four dogs and nine cats -- jumped on the phone to adopt a nurse mare foal from Last Chance Corral.
In 2007, they adopted two foals: a dark-brown bay thoroughbred named Zeba and Piper, a smaller, light-brown quarter horse. The adoption was a lengthy and detailed process that included informing Last Chance Corral of how much land they owned and paying a $300 donation that Last Chance Corral used to buy more foals.
The foals were fragile when they arrived to Jo and Tommy and nearly every bone in their bodies were on full display. The two had traveled on trailers for the first full month of their lives. Trips from Kentucky to Ohio and, finally, from Ohio to South Carolina, left them malnourished and in poor health. Tommy and Jo nursed them back to health and treated them like their own children.
Jo became choked up when asked about the progress her foals have made over the past year.
"It means everything," she said of her horses' health. "It's been my life for the past year. They've changed me -- to see an animal grow like that from almost dying -- it means everything to me."
Victoria Goss, founder of Last Chance Corral, graduated from veterinarian school and pursued a professional riding career, where she said her heart was broken by the plight of a horse.
"I made a promise to a dead horse that I would never see a horse dying and do nothing," Goss said.
Since making that pledge, Goss sold a 20-room house and now lives in a two-bedroom cabin, and said she couldn't be happier. The move was made to finance Last Chance Corral, which is located at the fittingly named Hope Dairy Barn in Athens, Ohio. Goss has provided hope to hundreds of nurse mare foals, taking in 150 to 200 each year, with a mortality rate of about 5 percent. She said her business pays $15,000-25,000 to feed and take care of the foals.
Goss said Last Chance Corral and the foal's adoptive care takers share a serious responsibility.
"It's life or death," she said. "You are the only thing that stands between life and death for these animals. You're their moms."
Unfortunately, it is expensive to maintain a foal rescue and many don't stay open very long. Goss said the rescue demands a lot of personal energy and finances, but is worth it when the foals are healed and healthy.
"You're taking in these fragile lives that eventually bounce to their feet," she said. "You've saved these beautiful lives."