|A recovering starved horse from the track. [Photo: John Brookland 1976]|
National Scandal of the Starved Horses
In 1975 I found myself starting a new job as Chief Inspector of the Bahamas Humane Society in Nassau and had no idea that soon after my arrival I would be sitting alone in a derelict Hobby Horse Hall Racetrack stable at Cable Beach cradling in my lap the grotesquely grimacing head of a skeletal dying horse named Last Hope.
Before arriving in the Bahamas I had been informed that I was expected to regularly inspect the racetrack stables and I had foolishly envisaged that in a millionaires playground it would be a professional operation on par perhaps with the likes of Newmarket in the U.K or Churchill Downs in the U.S., but I could not have been more wrong because I had I arrived during the demise of the once famous and iconic Hobby Horse Hall when hundreds of horses suffered, and many died horrible deaths. The Government, Racing Commission and Horse Owners Association were all aware of the situation but chose not to do anything.
|Finish line of Hobby Horse Hall in 1960s.|
Horse racing came early to the Bahamas, incredibly early in fact, when a rudimentary track was built near Fort Charlotte in 1792 by the occupying colonists. But a “proper” track was constructed later opposite Cable Beach where the Baha Mar resort now stands and was popular from the 1930’s onwards until a major fire destroyed most of the facilities in February 1958. By 1960 a new grandstand and parade ring were built and state of the art starting gates and photo finish cameras were installed. It became the haunt of the rich colonial elite who mingled with the famous such as the likes of Errol Flynn and they enjoyed charcoal grilled lobster, turtle pie and steaks on the dining terrace while watching top jockeys and horses some from Miami. It had such a colourful social scene that the press eagerly wrote society columns publishing photographs of the celebrities, the fashion and the hats worn by the ladies.
|Eroll Flynn at the Hobby Horse Hall racetrack before its decline.|
I therefore expected great things when I first visited the track in early October 1975 and drove past the life size white horse statue at the gate. I was fascinated to follow in the footsteps of Errol Flynn and his ilk, but nothing could have prepared me for the sights I was about to witness. The racing season stretched from February to the end of May and officially all horses had to be removed by the 1st. June when electricity and water supplies were turned off in the stable yard but each year only the thoroughbreds and breeding mares were taken and most of the rest were let loose to fend for themselves until rounded up for the next season. During the season there could be upward of 300 horses on the site, but off season the numbers varied as horses wandered in and out or were brought in and abandoned to die.
It is exceedingly difficult to describe adequately what was happening behind the scenes in the track’s last few years without it appearing totally exaggerated. As we drove into the stable yard, I could see pathetic looking half-starved horses everywhere, most of them wandering loose with protruding ribs and sunken backs. The yard contained fifteen or so long wooden stable blocks and a couple of more sturdy brick ones in various states of dereliction. I could not believe what I was seeing. Some buildings were covered in graffiti and painted murals. Nearly every stable door was damaged either by chewing or rot and most walls had planks missing or ragged holes in them. There was a thick haze and smell of marijuana permeating the whole place with a handful of stable lads many obviously worse for wear. Piles of dung littered the place along with beer cans and bottles, debris and abandoned vehicles.
Hordes of rats vied for the horses' food.
Horses vied with hordes of huge brazen rats when feed buckets were placed in front of the lucky ones that were still being attended to. They appeared from everywhere and when the horses tried to force their heads into the buckets they were bitten and had to back off to wait until the rats had finished. I approached one bucket and attempted to shoo the rats away, but they were pretty determined and showed little fear of humans.
|The track's stables were all in a derelict state but still used each year. [John Brookland 1975]|
Owners had been hit by soaring feed prices which had tripled over the previous two years and just couldn’t afford to look after them. It was a case of letting them stray all over the island to fend for themselves or stay at the track and risk starving if no one bothered to turn up to feed them. It was accepted practice with no thought of the animals’ welfare. Mares would often die giving birth and I would find them dragged out of the stable and dumped in the undergrowth rotting and covered in flies. It was so bad that it became routine for me to visit at least every other day to satisfy myself there were no horses starving to death so that I could sleep at night.
My local colleague who was showing me round put it this way:
“This is the off season, man, and no one is interested in the track or horses at this time of the year. The best thoroughbreds and mares are taken away for breedin’, but the others are just turned loose, just turned out and abandoned man if they are lucky or just left to rot in their stables. You’ll find them wandering all over the island, some get hit by cars on the road and others starve in the bush. This whole track is crooked man. It works like this. There are a lot of good horses which win all the races and are taken away at the end of the season. After that no one cares about the others as they’re not worth a dollar. Look, see those horses over there, the skinny ones, they been fending for themselves all summer. Soon the trainers will be getting all their men to round em up wherever they are, stuff em with hay for a few weeks and they’ll be racing in no time”.
When I suggested that they didn’t look as though they could win anything he replied:
“Trainers’ be annoyed if they did. They’re the fillers. It’s all fixed, man.”
And so, it was. The whole Nassau race operation appeared to be corrupt, contrived and a national scandal, but no one seemed to care. It was an accepted way of life. Races were allegedly “fixed” or contrived using every trick in the book. “Ringers” appeared to be put in under false names, horses were drugged with uppers or downers, made weak by not feeding or exercising them and old nags put in as “fillers” to make up the numbers in the race alongside the thoroughbred preordained winners. Each big owner or trainer of a stable apparently took turns to “win” races to spread the prize money out fairly and at the end of a successful season they took their best horses and breeding mares away. During the season I would find horses with abscesses on their necks where they had been injected with dirty needles and discarded bottles of drugs which seemed to back up the stories.
Often when eight or nine horses were listed to run a race several did not turn up as they could not find a horse fit enough to complete the circuit without dropping dead halfway round. It was not unknown for the thoroughbreds to do exactly that as in the case of Sir Mark in the “Horse of the Year race” which dropped dead two yards after passing the winning post to much publicity. Cause of death unknown. Gambling syndicates and those “in the know” had a good time while local punters and visitors were basically fleeced.
“I followed the 1975 season from beginning to end and sad to say it was very disappointing to the public and many patrons of the track expressed such sadness. If Mr Bastian [new racetrack director] is to do an honest job with the public in mind then he must make certain that the races are competitive and not given races i.e. races that are so made up for particular horse to win or the stable to win. Neither should a programme be made up to show nine horses in the race when in fact there only six honest entries. The proper thing to do is to run six horses and the public not be cheated out of three.” [John Leon Rolle, Letter to Editor, Nassau Guardian 1975]
The track was owned by a company called Raceco Ltd and they told me they were on a downward spiral with operational money in short supply and any profits being syphoned off and disappearing to Miami and elsewhere. They were in talks with the government to buy the track and build a hotel, convention hall and casino complex which happened many years later. Mr. Franklyn Wilson, the racing Commission chairman and an M.P for Grants Town had no answers either but hoped a new track would be built in early 1976 off Gladstone Road which of course did not happen, and the 1976 season took place as usual with more deaths on and off the track. It seemed incredible that only 10 years earlier in its heyday it was holding high profile cup races with huge prize money and famous thoroughbred horses like Sir Gaylord, a Kentucky Derby hopeful in 1962 to packed crowds and being filmed by Pathe News and other American media.
This then was the famous and iconic hallowed national racetrack of the Bahamas situated only a matter of yards from luxury hotels like the Ambassador Beach directly opposite and their tourist residents.
I could not stand by and ignore all the suffering and death and decided it was my mission to try and close the track. I was soon put on my guard by the young local racetrack veterinarian Dr Balfe who was suffering from several cracked ribs at the time when he informed me to “watch your back, as this is what happens when I try to pull a horse from a race”. He had been beaten up for removing a highly favoured horse from a race that had a lot of money riding on it. His warning was not without truth as I found out a few months later.
|We had to inspect the stables almost daily during the off season.|
As the months went by I had to attend to a constant stream of emaciated, injured and uncared for horses both at the track and around the island, many of which we managed to put back to health, some I had to unfortunately shoot, a few I had to rescue from abandoned wells that peppered the island while others were injured in road accidents and a handful we found new homes for. These were often stolen back by the owners once they were restored to health again as it was difficult to keep their location hidden on a small island which was all depressing, disheartening and a bit of a nightmare.
As part of my campaign to close the track I took futile but nuisance prosecutions against owners and with the help of the Nassau Guardian and the Tribune newspapers, took every opportunity to give the track bad publicity. They ran many front-page graphic stories using photographs that I supplied them.
Eventually I began to receive both veiled and actual threats including a group of drunken alleged stable lads who turned up at the Bahamas Humane Society one afternoon brandishing cutlasses and wanting a word with me, but luckily, I wasn’t present. This was soon followed by another group who arrived late one evening brandishing cutlasses and banging them on my front garden wall shouting that they were going to chop me up. I went through a period of slight concern but being young I thought I was invincible at the time and I found it all a little surreal. I didn’t take it too seriously, but my employers were worried to the point of putting iron bars on my bedroom window – ornate ones I might add. From then on, I never went to the track at night and during the day never without my dog Condor and a fellow inspector. In a perverse way though I believed I was having fun and doing something worthwhile by saving lives.
What happened to Last Hope.
As regards Last Hope the poor horse I mentioned at the beginning, I remained alone with her for nearly an hour awaiting help and it was the closest I have come to any kind a spiritual or ethereal experience, sitting there in the stillness and gloom of the stable with just the sound of her shallow breathing. It was an event so awful that it has haunted me for most of my life and ranks amongst the worst cases of animal cruelty I experienced. It was the thought of the suffering and hopelessness she must have gone through and her grotesque skeletal appearance that affected me the most, particularly the sight of her tightly drawn face revealing her teeth in an agony death mask grimace. I could not believe she was still clinging onto life.
|How I found Last Hope. [Photos: John Brookland. Article Nassau Guardian Nov.1975]|
While I awaited our veterinarian, I found myself praying and encouraging her to hang on although I expected she would have to be destroyed, but after an examination our vet thought she had a very slim chance of survival if I wanted to give it a try and of course I did. He reckoned she had not eaten or drunk for at least two weeks and was lucky to have survived that long. We managed to get her to sit up on her front elbows with her head raised and amazingly she drank and ate a little. We manhandled her into a trailer and took her back to the Bahamas Humane Society where we set up a feeding regime to avoid colic and put her on a course of treatment. I found out later that she had suffered losing a foal a couple of months previously to add to her woes.
She was miraculously back on her feet after a couple of days and started putting some weight on and I spent as much time with her as I could. She soon responded to all the kindness of the many well-wishers among the staff and volunteers. Tragically, despite intensive care and treatment, she started going downhill after several weeks and died, her internal organs having been weakened too much. We were all gutted, particularly me. The only compensation was that she experienced some love and care in those last few weeks of life.
|Last Hope on the road to recovery before her condition deterioated. [John Brookland 1975]|
I was determined to find her callous owner and eventually did. His name was Dencil Munnings, an apparently well-connected horse owner, who when I interviewed him could not understand why I had such a problem and laughed off any suggestion of me prosecuting him. Even though I was a district constable in the Royal Bahamas Police Force as part of the job, it was hard work to convince the force to charge him as everyone thought prosecuting someone for starving a horse was absurd and had never been done before. I had to resort to getting the Police Commissioner involved who I had luckily met once at a party.
|Nassau Tribune 1975|
He was eventually arrested and charged but didn’t turn up at two court for hearings, but the judge to his credit, reluctantly issued a warrant for his arrest. Mr. Munnings finally had his day in court, pleaded guilty and was fined the maximum $50 (£25) for the offence under a completely outdated and farcical colonial animal cruelty law. A waste of time perhaps but I wanted to make a point and it kicked started bad publicity for the track and my campaign to close it. But I passionately believed I owed Last Hope some justice for her suffering. I went on to prosecute several other owners
The carnage continued right up to the time the track mercifully closed in 1978. Mr. Wellington Ferguson head of the Bahamas Horse Owners’ association stated:
“several owners have been starving their horses in protest [at the track closing]. Others just cannot afford to look after their animals. We cannot take responsibility for these horses starving to death, but there is nothing we can do. Our police are acting. Two people have been fined for allowing them to stray”.
Some of the horses were airlifted to Miami to be found new homes, paid for by American charities. I visited the track just after it was abandoned awaiting demolition and wandered the empty overgrown stable yard now mercifully free of suffering horses and wondered if it had all been a dream. I can still remember many of the horse’s names that I helped: Spanish Dancer, Strange Girl, Troublemaker, Royal Order, Air Queen, Hang Em High, Hot love II, Last Sight and Connie. The new hotel complex has obliterated all trace of the track except for a small area of nature preserve which bares its name, but there is no memorial to all the unforgivable abject cruelty caused to those poor horses. For some reason there is much misplaced nostalgia for the place.
The new hotel complex has obliterated all trace of the track except for a small nature reserve which bears its name, but there is no memorial to all the unforgivable abject cruelty caused to those poor horses. For some inexplicable reason there is much misplaced nostalgia for the place, but it was a shameful episode in Bahamas history.