Horse trainer Jan Ely remembers the day she received a frantic phone call from an animal rescue volunteer who had identified one of the horses in a "kill pen" in Shipshewana, Ind., as Pushin Up Daisy — a thoroughbred mare who had been racing at Arlington Park just a few months earlier.
"She had left Arlington around the end of July of 2015 and just four months later, she had her foot on the banana," said Ely, the coordinator of Galloping Out.
The nonprofit organization in Illinois has found homes for more than 180 retired thoroughbred horses who have raced at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights and Hawthorne Race Course near south suburban Cicero.
When Ely answered the call from Indiana about Pushin Up Daisy, the executive director of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association happened to walk by.
"He gave me his credit card," Ely said. "I thought to myself, 'This horse doesn't know how lucky she is, or maybe she does.' But we purchased Pushin Up Daisy for $425, put her in our program and a few months later, she had a home."
Officials with the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which represents horse owners and trainers at Chicago-area tracks, launched Galloping Out six years ago to give the animals the chance to enjoy productive and rewarding lives after they retire from racing, according to Chris Block, president of Galloping Out.
The nonprofit recently was accredited by the national Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, based in Lexington, Ky., following a rigorous review of the organization's practices and facilities, including site visits to the farms where the rescue horses await adoption.
Joining the ranks of 64 accredited rescue organizations in the U.S. and Canada that have assisted more than 6,000 retired thoroughbred horses, Galloping Out also received a $10,000 grant from the alliance with the recognition.
The Galloping Out program, which provides for the care, rehabilitation and retraining of retired thoroughbred racehorses, is funded by contributions from the horsemen's association and donations from supporters, Block said.
Last summer, more than 95 percent of horse owners at Arlington agreed to contribute a $5 start fee each race to help support Galloping Out, amounting to $21,000, which the track matched, bringing the total to $42,000, he said.
Officials at Hawthorne also contributed $25,000 to the organization, he said.
But the care and housing of retired thoroughbreds is expensive, Block said, and requires paying roughly $400 a month per horse to the farms that board the animals, as well as funding the cost of food, veterinary and blacksmith services.
"We hope the horse is adopted out in under six months, if it's healthy and in sound physical shape, and doesn't have any bad vices," Block said. "But even when we're having a hard time finding an adoptive home for a horse, once they're in Galloping Out, we will continue to care for them, as long as they live, because they have no other avenue."
Ely, who coordinates the temporary placement of the Galloping Out horses while they are rehabilitated before adoption, said most of the equines find homes in Illinois, where they live as family horses who spend days trail riding, as well as jumping, competing in dressage, playing polo and serving as companion animals to children with developmental disabilities.
But the main goal behind Galloping Out is trying to limit the number of thoroughbred horses in the Chicago area that are killed at slaughterhouses by finding them permanent homes after retiring either because of age, injury or the simple fact that they are no longer winning races, Ely said.
Each year, roughly 130,000 American horses — racing, working, companion horses and even children's ponies — are transported long distances across the U.S. borders, heading for Mexico and Canada, where they are killed, according to the Humane Society of the United States' website.
Their meat then is shipped overseas for human consumption, the website stated.
Federal lawmakers, including, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democratic from Evanston, recently introduced legislation, called the Safeguard American Food Exports Act, designed to prevent the establishment of horse slaughter operations within the U.S. and end the current export of American horses for slaughter abroad.
A longtime horse supporter, Schakowsky said in an email that horses sent to slaughter are subject to "appalling, brutal treatment."
"This practice is abhorrent and unconscionable. I was proud to reintroduce the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act earlier this year," she said. "This bill will ensure that these majestic and intelligent animals are treated with the respect they deserve."
Horse rescue advocates say the majority of the horses sent to slaughter are young, healthy animals that could have led productive lives with loving owners if given the chance.
Tony Petrillo, the general manager of Arlington Park, said the track is well aware of the grim future that awaits — what he says — is a small number of retired thoroughbred horses who end up in the wrong hands.
The track also is a strong supporter of Galloping Out, both financially and philosophically, he said.
The track's house rules, for example, enforce a ban on horse slaughter, according to Petrillo.
Horse owners and trainers stabled at Arlington are warned in a published notice that their stalls will be permanently revoked if they are found to have "directly or indirectly" sold a horse for slaughter.
"Arlington requires its horsemen to conduct due diligence on those buying horses and encourages them to support rescue and adoption efforts, and to find humane ways of dealing with horses unable to continue racing," the published warning reads.
While Petrillo said the track has safeguards in place to ensure that the horses on site during the racing season are safe and well cared for, he acknowledged that once a horse is "checked-out" and transported to another venue, the animal's owner and trainer ultimately is responsible for the horse's welfare.
"The alternative for some of these horses could be dire, and it's not what people in this industry are about," Petrillo said. "But just like any industry, you're going to have some bad apples."
As the director of Tuckaway Farm in Elgin, which currently is home to several Galloping Out horses awaiting adoption, Kim Angerman said she enjoys assisting retired thoroughbred horses as they are re-trained for their new lives as competitors in hunter/jumper and dressage events, as well as their new roles as family companion animals.
"These retired thoroughbred horses can have a rough start because some of them have been racing a long time," said Angerman, adding how she adopted a Galloping Out horse for her own family. "The teenagers who ride at the farm really like to work with these horses, knowing they're helping find them new homes, which is very satisfying."
For many Galloping Out volunteers and supporters, the inspiration behind the work is the organization's many success stories, including that of Pushin Up Daisy, a horse saved from the Indiana kill pen at the last minute and who, today, has her own Facebook page.
"I always wanted to re-home a horse, so I arranged to drive up and see her, and as soon as we rode around, I knew, 'she's it,'" said Esther Sintim, 35, a high school teacher and married mother of two from West Lafayette, Ind.
She said Pushin Up Daisy was a Christmas gift from her husband.
"I had no idea that some racehorses that are not winning anymore or get injured end up in the kill pen," said Sintim, who has been riding since her childhood in northwest England.
Today, she visits her rescue horse at least four times a week at the stable where she boards, and she also is training for jumping and dressage events.
"Every time I look at her, I think, 'Oh my gosh … she's mine!'" Sintim said. "Whatever the reason is that we're together, I'm so glad I got her, and I hope she is, too."