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The forgotten Prince: How one racehorse escaped the slaughterhouse

(Page 2 of 2)

At Longmeadow, Stan stood in stall No. 2 eating fresh hay from a hanging feeder while keeping one big, brown eye on a visitor. He appeared not wary, but curious. His brown skin was dotted with yellow antibiotic cream. Keely Morgan, head of the Southern Illinois chapter of CANTER, a nonprofit group that rescues ex-racehorses, walked into the stable. She held a small desk lamp and 60-watt black-light bulb.

It was time to read Stan's lip tattoo.

Stan was the only horse off the kill truck with a permanent identifying mark there were no other tattoos or brandings or microchips. All U.S. racehorses are required to have a unique six-digit code tattooed under their lip. A black light makes the skin around the tattoo glow.

While Hirshberg held the reins, Morgan rubbed Stan's nose to calm him and slid her hand over his upper lip, coaxing it back. A series of greenish letters appeared against a wall of mottled flesh. Stan reared back.

"I know, baby, I'm sorry," she said, squinting at his tattoo.

The first digit looked like a "Q" or a "G." The middle sequence appeared to be "3752," with "3" or "5" at the end.

"You're being so precious," Morgan said.

"He's a good guy," Hirshberg said.

Morgan released his lip.

"Let's head for a phone."

In Hirshberg's office, Morgan called the Jockey Club in Lexington, Ky., to have the tattoo researched.

Ten minutes later, the Jockey Club had a hit.

Stan had a new name: Prince Conley.

Born at a bad time

According to Jockey Club records, Prince Conley was born on April 21, 1987, in Kentucky.

It was perhaps the worst time in U.S. horse racing history to be born.

That year the number of registered newborn thoroughbreds called foals reached an all-time high of 50,917. The industry simply could not support that many horses. Already, the average number of starts per horse was falling. Each horse's career was getting shorter and shorter. Since then, the number of newborn foals has crashed. All those extra horses have to go somewhere. And for some that means the slaughterhouse the fate for an estimated 90,000 horses of all breeds this year alone. Even the famous don't get a reprieve. Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby, ended up going to a slaughterhouse in Japan after failing as a stud.

That left little hope for unheralded runners like Prince Conley. He never started an official race but he must have come very close or he wouldn't have a tattoo, according to racehorse owners.

Prince Conley was bred by two men, Max Killian and Kim Ellsworth. For years, the two cousins ran a horse farm in Paris, Ky., the heart of bluegrass horse country.

Neither man could remember Prince Conley.

Ellsworth, 63, now retired from the horse business, wasn't surprised he failed to recall one horse. Ellsworth's farms produced 150 foals a year. "If they're not that good, they're sold and I never see them again," he said from his home in Riverside, Calif.

In the late 1980s, Ellsworth and Killian's horses were raised in Kentucky and then shipped to an Arizona farm before racing at West Coast tracks. They assumed Prince Conley followed this path.

Killian, 80, an attorney living in Mesa, Ariz., said that if a thoroughbred doesn't work out, "it's a business and you sell them. They serve no useful purpose." Killian could not recall the origins of the name Prince Conley.

"You know, I had a very good friend named Conley. I sold him some mares. He might have bought this horse," he said.

Conley was Conley Wolfswinkel. He did buy the horse.

Once again, it was bad timing for Prince Conley.

Just as the horse might have hit his stride on the track, his owner hit the skids. In the 1980s, Wolfswinkel was overseeing a real estate empire in Arizona. But then he was implicated in the nation's savings and loan scandal. He declared bankruptcy, was convicted of bank fraud and hit with a billion-dollar civil judgment. Reached by phone in Arizona recently, Wolfswinkel said he doesn't remember the horse, either.

Trading horses

Then Prince Conley disappears. It is perplexing, but not unusual, say horse owners. After all, Prince Conley barely registered with his original handlers.

Ellsworth was at a loss. "Where was he the last 15 years?" he said. "Was he a jumper? He wasn't a racehorse. Was he a pet? A horse that old might've been somebody's pet. Where was he?"

The last known place for Prince Conley was the George Baker Stables in Stroud, Okla., where the kill truck was loaded. Baker, a horse trader, turned down repeated requests to help locate Prince Conley's previous owner. Other horses on the kill truck bore auction stickers from an auction barn in Sulphur, Okla. But the auction owner said it would be difficult to trace back any one horse, even with the buyer's help.

Baker puts together shipments of horses for another horse trader, Charles Carter of Loveland, Colo., who has a contract to supply the Cavel International slaughterhouse in Illinois.

Carter estimated half of the 300 horses he buys each week are slaughtered. Known as "kill horses," those animals "are the ones you can't do nothing with," he said.

Carter said he was astonished at the attention paid to the accident. "If that was a load of cows, or a load of pigs or even a load of children," he said, "we wouldn't be hearing as much about it."

And that gets to the heart of the problem with horse slaughtering, why it creates such a controversy. No other animal teeters so precariously between livestock and pet.

"There's an argument about what a horse is," acknowledged Rose Sylvia, a Texas horse rancher who once worked with Kim Ellsworth. "Is it livestock, like cattle? Or is it like a big dog, part of the family?"

The royal treatment

Prince Conley might have been livestock.

But Stan is a pet.

The 19-year-old racehorse still lives at Longmeadow Ranch. He is eating well, gaining weight, the outline of his ribs disappearing. He's now well over 1,000 pounds adding to what he'd be worth at the slaughterhouse.

But the slaughterhouse will not see this old racehorse. He, like the 23 other horses and one mule that survived the kill truck crash, will be adopted out next year to new owners who promise to provide good care and to keep them from slaughter. Stan has plenty of admirers, too, including Hirshberg, the ranch manager.

There was also an inquiry from the new owners of the Paris, Ky., farm where Prince Conley was born. They loved the idea of the old racehorse returning to run the bluegrass pasture he grew up on, to live out his last years with dignity, a chance for a horse that never made anyone a dime at the track to be treated like a prince, with luck finally on his side.

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