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Rising Stars: Meet Jodi Ladner

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jodi Ladner.

Hi Jodi, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
Hi, thank you so much for having me! My name is Jodi Ladner, and I run an organization called Gateway Off-Track Thoroughbreds (formerly CANTER Illinois). I work on the backside of Fairmount Park Race Track across the river in Collinsville, Illinois (now called Fanduel Sportsbook and Horse Racing). My job is to help find homes for retiring racehorses. What many people may not know is that there are hundreds of horses living back there, in concrete barns, with little access to the outdoors, or to avenues to find their 2nd careers and new homes. These horses retire from racing anywhere from ages 2 to 11, are beautiful animals with so much potential, and our work helps to keep them out of the auction and slaughter pipeline.

I have been a horse person most of my life and was introduced to retiring thoroughbreds in the 1990s when I graduated from college in Toronto, Canada. My trainer and I found a horse standing in a field, obviously neglected, but he was wearing a beautiful leather halter with a brass nameplate engraved with the name StackAttack. The internet did not yet exist, so a few phone calls to the Jockey Club in Lexington, Kentucky, confirmed that the horse was indeed StackAttack. He was a long way from home. He had raced in the UK and, on paper, belonged to Robert Sangster, at the time one of the world’s wealthiest men. I named him Teddy, and he became my best friend. With lots of love and time, he put on weight, got healthy, and was retrained to be a wonderful riding horse. He soon found his forever home with a dear friend.

Fast forward to 2012, my youngest child is finally in preschool, and I live in Saint Louis. After a few years away from horses while raising my children, I had the time and wanted to start riding again. An ad on Craigslist caught my eye, and a few days later, my friend Aletta Martin and I were at Fairmount Park Race Track in nearby Collinsville, Illinois, looking at a big gorgeous grey racehorse.

Once we saw the backside of Fairmount Park and learned that no one was helping to network and rehome the almost 800 horses that lived there, Aletta and I revived a dormant organization called CANTER Illinois. I am not sure if you’ve ever seen the backside of a racetrack, but it’s not what you think. Concrete barns, miles, and miles of them, no grass, no paddocks, nowhere for horses to be horses.

We are now on the 2nd iteration of this venture, and recently renamed the group Gateway Off-Track Thoroughbreds. We work to provide retiring Thoroughbred racehorses with opportunities for new careers by helping to place, rehabilitate, and retrain these fantastic athletes. Since we started it in 2012, we have found new homes for over 850 beautiful retiring local thoroughbred racehorses. It’s been my life’s passion, and I am so proud of all we have accomplished; these horses are all beautiful and unique and deserve beautiful lives beyond racing.

Can you talk to us about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Running Gateway Off-Track Thoroughbreds (Gateway OTTBs) has been very rewarding but has also been a bumpy road with many challenges. Fairmount Park Race Track is one of, if not the lowest level race tracks in the country. This means that the purses are very low, and horses do not win much money, so the owners, trainers, and jockeys are not well-compensated for their work. Low purses and low earnings mean resources are not always widely available for the extras you may see on TV when watching racing, including interventional veterinary care and other luxuries. Horses may also keep racing past their prime, earning their keep from race to race, as buying new horses requires capital that may be out of reach.

Educating the trainers and owners to retire horses when they are still “sound,” meaning before permanent injuries set in, is an ongoing challenge. Retiring a horse sound means it will have many more options in the future, a longer, healthier life, and appeal to a wide range of buyers. Many trainers understand the value of retiring a horse while still healthy and, in turn, reap the benefits of more buyers and a higher price tag when the horse is sold.

Funding is an overall challenge and is an industry-wide issue. While inroads have been made in the last 5 years, no national or regional funding or oversight for thoroughbred aftercare exists. Our number one issue is finding help and resources for the horses who are hurt or who have permanent injuries which will limit their future careers and well-being. Rehabilitating a horse is an expensive and long-term commitment. Very few organizations do this work, and their funding is minimal. We are always looking for funding and fosters and organizations or individuals to help horses in need.

I have learned many lessons along the way, including the ever-valuable and always fashionable lesson of being a better listener. I have learned to be more open-minded, and to fully embrace the notion that while others may not always do things in a text-book way or how I might approach it, most everyone is doing their best. Extending grace is very important.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I go to the backside of the racetrack year-round and photograph and take videos of every horse ready to retire and find its new home. The backside of the racetrack is not open to the public, and my role is to bridge the gap between this cordoned-off area where hundreds of horses live and the horse buyers across North America.

I have learned so much over the years. I have become a much better photographer. As people look at these photos on our website and social media very quickly, I have one chance to make each horse stand out. The photos need to show each horse’s personality, kindness, their build, and most importantly, the photos need to capture each horse’s potential. Horses who are “racing fit” look a lot like elite human athletes. They are lean with very little body fat. Their musculature is particular to one thing – racing. I’ve had to educate buyers to look beyond what they see at the moment, don their “future goggles,” and picture each horse with several hundred pounds of extra weight and a new silhouette.

In addition to the photos and video, I measure each horse, try to grasp its personality and any quirks, ask about injuries (past or present), and watch how the horse moves and carries himself. These data points combine to help form an idea of which 2nd career(s) would best suit the horse, ranging from polo to jumping, trail riding to ranch work, and dressage.

I have a network of hundreds of adopters & buyers in both the USA and Canada and use social media, the website, and direct email and phone conversations to place each horse. Because we place on average 125 horses a year, it is very busy and rewarding work.

Fairmount Park/Fanduel races from May to September every year, so the bulk of the horses go up for adoption or sale in late summer and early fall. As we ramp up to our busy season, I ask that your readers follow us on social media and help by sharing our posts. Getting the word out about these horses is the most important thing. These horses go on to be jumpers, trail horses, backyard pets, barrel horses, polo horses – you name it -they can do it!

We’d love to hear what you think about risk-taking?
Well you know what they say – with the greatest risk comes the greatest reward, and this is true with horses too.

The riskiest part of running an organization like this is the most beneficial, which is when we can directly help and rehabilitate an injured horse. When we have the funding, we take horses into our care and provide the veterinary interventions, rehabilitation, and retraining they need. When each horse is ready and we know what he or she will be capable of in their next career, we work with their foster to find each horse a loving forever home. This work is risky, as there is no guaranteed positive outcome, it is expensive, and anything can happen. Horses are flight or fight animals, and have been known to gravely hurt themselves standing quietly in a field.

We have a team of veterinarians and other professionals, including trainers, farriers, and chiropractors, who work together to provide the best for every horse in our care. It is extremely gratifying to see these horses recover from chronic or acute injuries and move on to become happy and healthy in their next lives. When they find their forever home, and we get photos and videos from their grateful new owners, it is all worth it.

And while we’re talking about risks, I have personally adopted two racehorses! The first was named Cartlets. That’s his Jockey Club registered racing name, which we changed to Carter. He was 9 years old when he left Fairmount, which is very old for a racehorse. He was with me for many years and loved, spoiled, and doted on. He learned to jump, be a trail horse, eat many treats, and sadly had to be humanely euthanized in the summer of 2021 from a tendon infection. After a few months off, I recently adopted Majestic Hero, who I call Archie Mountbatten. Archie is learning to be a horse, recovering from racing injuries, adjusting to his new lower-intensity lifestyle, and being spoiled beyond reason. He was 5 years old when he left the track after 31 races, and I hope for him to compete with me in the sport of eventing, which combines dressage with show jumping and cross-country jumping.

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