Patti Shirley once raised racehorses. Now she tries to give them a comfortable retirement. It's a monumental task.

The racing industry is in decline both locally and nationally, which means more and more horses are in need of homes.

Shirley and fellow horse advocate Cass Dewey, both of Tucson, not only take in retired animals, they also rescue racehorses targeted for slaughter in Mexico. Most of the horse meat is sold overseas.

Dewey has been taking in thoroughbreds for about 30 years. She's had as many as 72 horses at once, but generally averages about 35.

Her passion started when she was young and rode hunter jumpers. She also went to Tucson's Rillito Racetrack as a child, and now works there during its eight-week season.

Dewey blames the decline in racing on the economy and the Internet, as well as the rising popularity of casinos.

"People like quick excitement," she said. "Why go down to the racetrack when you can watch it right there on the Internet?"

Yavapai Downs in Prescott didn't open last year or this year, she said, and horses races at county fairs, once a popular event, have faded out in recent years with state budget cuts.

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One national organization helping with thoroughbred placement is CANTER, or the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses.

Based in Phoenix, the Arizona chapter is only a few years old. Angela Carmitchel was already involved in horse rescue when she discovered CANTER.

"I love the thoroughbred's heart and desire to work, and their athleticism," said Carmitchel, a lifelong equestrian.

CANTER's mission is to get racehorses into second careers, but the nonprofit does not serve as a horse rescue. Instead, it puts photos of available racehorses on its website, giving the public an easy link to animals' trainers and owners.

When racehorses don't sell, CANTER sometimes uses its donations to take ownership. Horses are retrained and resold.

Tucsonan Kelly Soto is fostering a CANTER horse named Continental Shogun. Helping in this way is ideal for Soto, who will be deployed to Afghanistan again this fall.

"Fostering him gives me a horse to ride until I leave again in November," she said. "I like the fostering. It's nice to play around with a bunch of different horses."

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Dewey carried out a massive rescue about three years ago. There were 38 mares, she said, most of them pregnant, as well as five stallions.

She was working at Turf Paradise, a racetrack in Phoenix, when she heard a breeder in California had unknowingly sold the horses to a so-called killer buyer.

"They were downsizing and they didn't want to deal with it," she said of the horse sale. Dewey tracked down the animals and bought them back for $700 each. "All of the sudden, my little farm had 52 horses on it," she said. "We got it done. People came by and dropped off food."

Shirley said the horses shipped to Mexico for slaughter undergo a horrific journey without food or water, and then die after being stabbed repeatedly in the back to render them helpless.

Considering this, and the number of horses that need homes now, she is not opposed to euthanasia.

"It's better to have them put to sleep in a stall than to be starving out in the desert," said Shirley, whose rescue organization is called Equine Encore Foundation. "Don't put them through the agony of going to a slaughterhouse."

Shirley and her husband, who is deceased, once raised and raced thoroughbreds. She now has about 70 horses on her property west of Three Points, and spends nearly $1,000 per week for hay.

"I'm no longer interested in continuing with the breeding," she said. "What I need to do is address the problem of these horses and what to do with them."

Many of her horses cannot be adopted out because they have permanent injuries or difficult temperaments.

"Racing is a business and, in business, when the machinery no longer functions, you get rid of it," said Shirley. "Here we're dealing with living, breathing creatures who have given their all and made money for their owners."

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at pmachelor@azstarnet.com or 806-7754.