From Track to Trail

Learn about the journey racehorses in the Finger Lakes take when they change careers.

The crowd roars as the horses fly down the home stretch. You can see their powerful muscles underneath sweat and hair. The announcer bellows into his microphone, making the air even thicker with excitement. People scream names, numbers and colors.

The tension builds until it explodes under the wire as the star athletes thunder over the finish line. These are professional athletes, wired to perform at their very best. These are horses, skilled racers, athletes, better than any machine could ever be. They connect with the atmosphere of people, and draw them in with a gravitational pull unequaled.

Most people are familiar with horses as a source of entertainment, and the racetrack as a place to go Friday and Saturday afternoon or evening to gamble and bet. This is Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack. But there is another side to this story, a place for opportunity, and for “Giving horses a second chance to be winners.”

Racehorses are bred and born for speed. They begin their training at about 2 years old, and continue their careers until they no longer can. They are under strenuous workouts and race schedules, and great care is taken to ensure they can run their best. But horses are not machines, and cannot race for their entire lives. When a horse has an injury, is too old or too slow, it is usually retired.

Most horses are less than 5 years old when they retire. Some careers last longer than others, but when a horse is retired, it can’t stay at the track. Trainers usually want their horses to go to good homes since they still have almost 20 years of life ahead of them. But in the past, these horses have been neglected and sold at auctions for slaughter.

Several years ago, some horses from Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack almost ended up at an auction for slaughter. This showed an urgent need for a program to oversee adoptions of Finger Lakes racehorses, and in 2007 Purple Haze was founded.

Unique in Every Way
Purple Haze sits on the outskirts of Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack in Farmington. Originally, most horses were adopted off the backside of the track, a place where horses were faced with uncertain futures and homes. Purple Haze creates another option. “A woman by the name of Wanda Polisseni donated a 10,000-square-foot barn to Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Adoption Program so they could house retired horses,” says Julie Kisielewski, program director at Purple Haze. The name Purple Haze comes from the name of Wanda’s racing stable in Florida.

When Purple Haze was completed, it was the only thoroughbred adoption program in the nation located directly on the grounds of a racetrack, and still is today.

Specialty Suites
The Purple Haze barn can house 16 horses maximum, and the barn is almost always full. The horses are given five-star hotel treatment. All the horses are fed about half a bale of hay and 6 to 10 quarts of grain every day, split into three feedings. This adds up to about $10,000 to $15,000 dollars per year, per horse. The horses also receive all the care they need – dentistry, farrier and veterinary care, and training – at the facility.

“They aren’t cheap,” says Kisielewski.

A New Beginning
When Purple Haze gets a new horse at the facility, Kisielewski and Damaris Cruz – the barn manager – first try to evaluate its abilities and demeanor. This is so the horse can be adopted by someone it can get along with.

“We try to evaluate them to the best of our ability,” says Kisielewski. It takes about two weeks to evaluate a horse, to know them and have the best chance of getting a perfect match. On Purple Haze’s website, paragraphs are written so hopeful adopters can look for a horse they might like. While at the center, staff focus on transitioning the horse from the specialized environment of the racetrack to the more relaxed and natural environment of a pleasure horse.

Finding the Perfect Match
Purple Haze is open to the general public. In fact, people who have little to no horse knowledge are welcome to come and visit. Some people who have never seen a horse close up before will come and enjoy the new experience.

But not just anyone can adopt a horse. A large amount of effort goes into finding each unique horse a perfect home. If someone wants to adopt a horse from Purple Haze, they must go through a specific process to ensure safety for horse and rider, and a suitable match.

The potential adopter must first fill out the Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Adoption Program Inc. Adoption Application form.

“Through the application, we get an idea of what kind of rider you are,” says Kisielewski. This will help with the adoption process.

After a hopeful adoptee applies for a horse, they must wait to be approved by the program. Once the application is approved, the applicant can begin searching for a horse.

Once the adoptee chooses a horse, they must agree to the Placement Agreement. “It’s basically saying the horse cannot be raced again, go to slaughter, or sold at auction, and if the owner decides to get rid of the horse we have the first right to refuse to take the horse back and say ‘we don’t want it, go ahead and sell,’” says Kisielewski.

Once the horse is adopted, there is a provisional time the horse must be kept. “The owner must hold onto the horse for at least one year,” says Kisielewski.

The Fuel
Purple Haze’s operating money comes from fundraisers, adoption fees and donations. Fundraisers are held to collect money for the facility. A Purple Haze Path dinner is held every year. Many people attend this event and Purple Haze benefits greatly.

Adoption fees play a large part in Purple Haze’s funding. Adoption fees can range from $500 to $2,000.

Still Running Strong
Purple Haze intends to only get stronger. Kisielewski has her sights set on a new facility and many more success stories. More horses will pass through Purple Haze and into good hands, and more people will continue to see a horse up close for the first time. Purple Haze is a very unique part of the Finger Lakes; stop by sometime and see a special horse for yourself.
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A Letter to Purple Haze from a Happy Customer
I just wanted to touch base with you and tell you what a joy Ace has been. Ace has done so well trail riding. At first he was very afraid of going through the creek or water that we would encounter on the trail. He would stand and shake and not follow the other horses through. I would get off and lead him…and he would always jump the water. Finally our fourth time on this one trail he follow the other horses and jumped the water. He gave me plenty of notice before he leaped over the water and we flew it together in perfect unison. I love to jump and he did not come up lame afterwards. I knew we were on our way. Ace lead on our trail ride through the woods only after riding through them once. He does not shy away when deer run out and he is very bold. Ace listens to me and enjoys working. He does well when introduced to other horses and does not mind following.

When I cannot ride him I make sure to spend time with him on the ground. I work with his stable manners and his socialization skills. He has calmed down so much and we trust each other. When I walk out to the pasture he gallops down to me. I am always a bit nervous hoping he will stop…he always does and I smile. He also will follow my mom when she walks up the road with her dog. When we let him out of the stalls he usually will run up and down the pasture stretching his legs. He seems so happy.

I just wanted you to know how well he is doing and how much he is loved. He has really changed my life!
– Leigh Major
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For more information visit fingerlakestap.org

Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Adoption Program Purple Haze Center
5757 Route 96
Farmington, NY 14425
585-924-9510
585-905-7457


by Ellie Schwarz
Ellie Schwarz is currently a freshman at Marcus Whitman High School.When she was four she started riding. Her recently retired horse, “My Girl,” made the transition from track to trail.