By Tom Canavan
NEWARK, N.J. — Broadway Kevin waited in the auction holding pen, a successful harness horse whose life was now worth less than the cost to take care of him.
If the local Amish farmers bought him, he'd spend his last years pulling carriages over the countryside. If the meat procurers won, a horse that went to the winner's circle five times would be shipped to Mexico and Canada to be slaughtered for meat to be sold in Europe and Japan.
Broadway Kevin caught a break: The 11-year-old was sold for $525 to a rescue group and became a member of the Newark Police Department's mounted patrol. Across the country, retired race horses like Broadway Kevin are finding new careers fighting crime.
Retired standardbreds and thoroughbreds have run downs hoodlums in Newark, thwarted car thieves in Richmond, Va., patrolled the streets of Omaha, Neb., and guarded the trails of some of the nation's most beautiful parks.
"The common trait among the race horses is that they are smart and they can learn their jobs. They are well suited for police work," said Jennifer Nagle, the adoption manager of the Standardbred Retirement Foundation in Hamilton, an organization that seeks homes for former harness horses who have either finished their racing careers or whose owners can no longer provide for them.
Overbreeding, the recession and the high cost of care has sent the number of unwanted horses spiraling. The last horse population census, done in 2005, showed 9.2 million horses in the United States, up from about 5.5 million in the mid-1990s, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
Nagle said owners who used to call and offer one horse for adoption may now be seeking homes for five or six.
Last year, 98,963 U.S. horses were shipped to Canada and Mexico in 2008 for slaughter, according to Keith Dane, the society's director of equine protection.
Saving horses can be costly. Ellen Harvey, who is the executive director of Harness Racing Communications and works with rescue groups, said it cost $3,000 in rehabilitation and training to get Broadway Kevin, now named Saber, ready for his second career.
The recession is affecting some mounted police units. Boston plans to disband its 12-horse unit in July and Camden, N.J., plans to shut its unit because feed and veterinary costs are too high.
But in Newark and other cities, police say horses are a key part of their force.
Thirteen of Newark's 18 mounted horses are standardbreds and at least three others are thoroughbreds. Most of the standardbreds came from the retirement foundation, which has found new homes for more than 2,000 horses in its 20-year existence.
"Like humans, no two horses are the same," said Lt. Robert Marelli, director of the mounted unit in Newark. "Most have good temperaments, they are not highly excitable and are used to being around crowds from their racing days. I'm happy to give them a second chance here."
A few weeks ago, officer Dennis Dominguez was patrolling Broad and Market Streets in downtown Newark and saw three young men pummeling another man. When one of the suspects fled on foot, Dominguez tracked him down on his police horse named - what else - Justice.
"He thought he was going to get away, but you can't outrun these horses," Dominguez said. "This is what they do. They are thoroughbreds, they are race horses. I did what I had to do. I'm glad I caught him."
Sgt. Eric Bardon, officer in charge of Richmond's six-horse mounted unit, said even on the roadways, horses are an effective crime-fighting force. He recalled how three standardbreds help nab a car thief.
"The car was stopped at a light and we surrounded him," Bardon said. "The guy gave up. He really wasn't expecting it."
The horses help with more routine police work as well, helping patrol parking lots and schools.
Officer Anthony Matos in Newark said being on the mounted patrol the past two years has given him the feeling of being closer to the community.
"The kids love them (the horses) and the parents usually bring the kids up to us," Matos said as 3-year-old Kayla Perry walked up and petted Commander, who raced as Cunning Liar, winning 26 of 171 lifetime starts and nearly $300,000. His last win came at the Meadowlands on Feb. 10, 2007.
"We always get thanks for being out here, with the community. It goes a long way, a lot longer," Matos said.
Newark officer Erich Schroeder has fond memories of finding a child who was separated from his parents in a department store. He got off his horse, Bold Ruler, and let the child pet the animal until the boy's parents were located.
"The child wiped away his tears and he just thought the horse was the greatest thing in the world," Schroeder said.
Marelli, who has been a police officer for 39 years, the last 19 on Newark's mounted patrol, has to make sure horses the department receives are cut out for police work.
Once he gets a horse, Marelli has three weeks to decide whether these 1,200-pound athletes will make the grade. The keys are temperament, demeanor and ability to follow six commands - walk, stop, stand, back up, side left and side right.
If they don't make it, they are returned to the foundation.
"I have some horses that are juicy out in the street, but when it comes time to work, they put their heads down and do their job," Marelli said. "The officer doesn't have to think about them ... That's what I stress, relax and let the horse do his thing."
Brian Nelson, the senior officer in a 12-horse unit in Omaha, recently added a standardbred. A former colleague saw an advertisement from the Standardbred Retirement Foundation and they adopted Kevin's Charger - later renamed Smokey- from the Wisconsin-Indiana area.
"It was not a matter that we particularly wanted a standardbred, but we always heard good things about them, that they are stout, very sound and usually 'bombproof,'" Nelson said.
Besides working in police departments, some former harness horses have joined the military. Three serve as riderless horses at funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. Sergeant York, who was the riderless horse at the funeral for President Ronald Reagan, used to race at Freehold Raceway in New Jersey as Allaboard Jules.
The older Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., also has a novel program with prisons in eight states which allows inmates to care for horses.
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"It's about caring for horses and saving lives," said executive director Diana Pikulski. "The horses need someone to care for them and love them, and the inmates need someone to care for and love."