The rain was heavy and the fog thick as John R. Murrell tried to catch sight of John’s Treasure, his three-year-old gelding, barrel through the muddy track at the 1986 Belmont Stakes.
For several nerve-racking moments, Murrell waited. “I was struggling to see through the blowing wind and rain, and I had an uneasy feeling,” he recalls.
Then suddenly, his beloved racehorse came roaring through the billows of fog, his fine form streaking toward the finish line near the front of the pack. He was fighting off the great Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand, and Danzig Connection. It was an exciting finish with Danzig Connection first, John’s Treasure second and Ferdinand third.
John’s Treasure gave Murrell one of his best memories of horse racing that day. One that inspires him to champion the sport and seek positive changes in the industry in a way that will, most of all, benefit the horses.
Looking back on it now, Murrell still thrills at the spectacle of his horse coming so close to winning The Belmont Stakes. In short, it was “pretty amazing,” he says.
Those edge-of-the seat moments at the racetrack inspired the second-generation Thoroughbred owner and Dallas businessman in his racing endeavors for years. Eager to follow in his footsteps of his father John H. Murrell, the son learned from the father how to treat horses and bring out their best performance.
“My Dad had some great horses, including Impressive, who was Sprinter of the Year, and Sunrise Fight, who won $300,000 in his racing career during the 1960’s,” Murrell said.
When his father passed away in 1993, an event he says that, “knocked me for a loop,” Murrell decided to do his best to honor his father’s passion for the sport.
However, as he was moving forward in the venerable business of his father, Murrell got news that would rock him on his heels, and change his role in the horseracing business.
In 2002, Murrell learned, along with the rest of the world, that Ferdinand, the champion Thoroughbred who had won The Kentucky Derby and had battled against his own John’s Treasure on the muddy, foggy track that day at The Belmont Stakes, had been slaughtered in a Japanese slaughterhouse.
“When I found out that Ferdinand had been killed in a Japanese slaughterhouse, the news shot right through me, and I knew I had to get involved. This was an abomination and a black eye to racing. I had to get involved.”
Murrell set out on what he terms an “uphill battle” against horse slaughter. He has championed and lobbied on the state and federal level to ban horse slaughter in the U.S., and has been an outspoken critic of some “bad seeds” within the horseracing industry.
“I think the industry has to change, or people will ostracize it, and it will wither and die,” he says. “Changes need to be made. We need to address issues such as medication, the dumping of horses, and the over-breeding.”
Murrell joined forces about three years ago with California thoroughbred advocate, Deborah Jones, to help rescue slaughter-bound horses from auctions frequented by meat buyers.
He says his role is a small one. But, it is Murrell who often works behind the scenes and pays the meat-price of a horse at auction to save them from the slaughterhouse, and get them into a safe home.
In July, Murrell and Jones teamed up to buy ten broodmares, owned by the prominent Asmussen racing family, from the Round Mountain Auction in Texas, a sale known to be frequented by kill buyers. While Jones bid on the horses over the phone, Murrell supplied the funding needed to purchase the desperate animals.
“When Deborah called me about the Round Mountain sale, I just said, ‘Buy them and get them out of there.’ People were throwing them away like trash.”
Murrell has helped Jones rescue many other ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds, including Norco Pal, a Thoroughbred who was in dire straits before he was discovered by Southern California Thoroughbred Rescue.
Norco Pal had already been purchased by a kill buyer when Murrell’s sponsorship made it possible for the horse charity to save him, according to Caroline Betts, founder of the rescue.
Although horses like Norco Pal, and many others are doing well because of last-minute intervention, horse slaughter continues to loom large over racing and its Thoroughbreds.
“Horses will continue to go to slaughter, and lives as great as Ferdinand’s will end in the slow, horrific death of a processing plant, as long as a lucrative European market for horsemeat exists,” Murrell says.
While he hopes the European taste for horseflesh will sour once stricter meat inspection policies take effect in 2013, Murrell believes that the most effective fight against horse slaughter must be waged here in the United States, from within the racing industry.
“Drugs, slaughter and throw-away horses are weaknesses in our industry, and they need to be addressed,” he says, noting that better practices could be mandated by a central governing body to oversee racing in a similar way that the NFL and the NBA oversee their respective sports.
“We need to create a culture in which people are more responsible for their horses and irresponsible ownership is no longer tolerated,” he says. “Generally, there are a lot of very fine people in the racing and breeding industries, but there are some bad apples.”
Murrell hopes that one day the sport he grew up with as a kid, the one his father taught him about, will return to its heyday as truly the “Sport of Kings.” Meanwhile, he will concentrate his hard work on saving the horses whose victories otherwise will mean nothing in the end.
“I’m going to continue my efforts to raise awareness of the cruelty and abuse of the horse slaughter industry. And, by raising public awareness, I hope to educate horse owners of the danger of dumping horses at livestock auctions.”