'Raja: Story of a Racehorse' takes equine's-eye view of life after the track

".... there is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham...."

—Anna Sewell/Black Beauty


Not a day goes by it seems without a tale of bad things happening to ex-racehorses - and the heroic struggle of the too-few people trying to save them.

So far this week, there was news of a deal cut by Harrisburg area prosecutors with Chester County horse dealer Kelsey Lefever that will spare her jail time (See my story in the Inquirer here). Lefever was charged with fraud for allegedly duping owners into believing she would find homes for their retired racehorses and instead selling them for slaughter.

Yesterday, the ASPCA announced the latest round of grants in their Million Dollar Racing Rescuers program that helps rescue groups helping retired race horses - many of them located in the southeastern Pennsylvania/South Jersey region.

Today I call your attention to a new book for young (and not so young) horse lovers.

"Raja: Story of a Racehorse"is the first novel written by a childhood friend of mine, Anne Hambleton, herself an accomplished horsewoman and ex-steeplechase jockey.

As horse crazy girls, Anne and I spent many memorable weekends galloping her ponies (or were they galloping us?) across her family's New Jersey farm. She reminded me recently that in fourth grade we competed in a race to see who could read the classic novel "Black Beauty" the most number of times.

A master work of children's literature, published in 1877, Black Beauty had a profound effect on me, exposing me and generations of young readers for the first time to the reality of animal cruelty as told through the eyes of a Victorian carriage horse, Beauty and his ill-fated friend, Ginger, and others.

I think of the book every time I see a lame Amish buggy horse - American Saddlebreds, Standardbreds and Morgans - many, likely once pampered, even champions in the show ring or on the racetrack, being driven hard down the macadam roads in Lancaster County.

Black Beauty's story never left Anne either.

Several years ago she set out to tell a modern Black Beauty story through the eyes of a once-promising racehorse whose fortunes fail.

Raja blends the magic of racing that hearkens to another children's classic, Walter Farley's "The Black Stallion," with the soulful story of Beauty, once a fancy carriage horse whose injuries lead to ever-lower jobs and ever-poorer treatment by a succession of owners.  It was the first popular work of literature to call attention to the inhumane treatment of working horses.

Raja begins life on a posh Florida thoroughbred breeding farm. With a champion blood lines, he is a top Kentucky Derby prospect owned by an Arab Sheikh and worth millions.

But like so many, a racetrack injury ends his career.  

Raja starts his long odyssey passing through a succession of owners until he hits the bottom: dumped at the infamous horse auction at New Holland, Lancaster County where so-called "kill buyers" snap up unfortunate horses for a few hundred dollars and truck them to slaughter houses in Quebec where they are butchered for meat consumed in Europe and Japan (and in Montreal).

Without revealing the ending, let's just say there is drama in the story, but it won't leave you despondent.

Raja is fiction, as one reviewer noted, but his story plays out everyday across the country where the horse industry, particularly thoroughbred and standardbred racing, has created a disposable culture that perpetuates overbreeding.

Black Beauty raised awareness of inhumane treatment of work horses and led to the end of the use in the carriage trade of "overchecks," a harness accessory that forces a horse's head into an unnatural position.

Perhaps Raja will serve as a cautionary tale for the next generation of horsewomen and men. As Raja reminds us 35,000 thoroughbreds are born every year, most retire before age six. Healthy thoroughbreds can live another 20 or more years - or end up on a dinner plate in France.

Anne will be signing copies of her book at the Pennsylvania Horse World Expo this weekend at the Farm Show in Harrisburg. It also is available on Amazon  for $14.95 in hardback or $4.95 on Kindle.