The clock already was ticking when Gail Hirt got the call.

A kill buyer in Pennsylvania had just purchased six thoroughbreds from a herd of frightened, disheveled horses sold through the weekly auction at New Holland, Pa. — and in 48 hours, he would load them onto a truck destined for a slaughterhouse in Canada.

As founder of Beyond The Roses Equine Rescue, Hirt knew the drill well. The kill buyer understood that groups like hers, which try to save former racehorses dumped into the slaughter pipeline, would pay more for those animals than the horse meat plants would. The ransom for these six — which included an emaciated, beaten-down chestnut — would be more than $3,000, a sum Hirt would have to raise before the truck showed up on this day in early May.

Years of negotiating with people who buy and sell horseflesh for human consumption meant Hirt was rarely shocked. But she was stunned when she discovered the identity of the bony chestnut: It was Tubby Time, who only four years earlier, in 2011, was horse of the year at Canterbury Park.

“I couldn’t believe it,’’ Hirt said of the gelding, a crowd favorite at Canterbury who won three stakes races and $220,936 at the Shakopee track. “I thought, ‘How did this horse end up here?’ Thank God we found him, and thank goodness Canterbury and his people stepped up for him.’’

On Wednesday, Tubby Time traveled in the opposite direction of the slaughterhouse, to a Florida farm and a delighted new owner. Hirt’s network of guardian angels got word of his plight to Canterbury Park, which immediately sent $2,000 for Hirt to purchase him from the kill buyer and get him to a safe haven. His former owners, Jeff and Dorene Larson, and breeder, Steve Erban, also have sent money to pay for Tubby Time’s care and help other horses in similar straits.

Jeff Larson said he was horrified to learn what had happened to Tubby Time. After retiring the 9-year-old horse from racing last fall, he sent Tubby Time — and a $2,000 stipend — to a farm that was supposed to place him in a good home. That farm sold Tubby Time to a man who said his daughter had fallen in love with the horse and planned to train him as a show jumper.

What happened next is unclear. Larson said he contacted that buyer to ask how Tubby Time wound up in the Pennsylvania kill pen, but the man hung up on him.

Though no horse slaughter plants currently are operating in the United States, Hirt said 150,000 horses per year are exported to meat processors in Canada and Mexico. Of those, she added, 20 percent are thoroughbreds. In recent years, the racing industry has taken measures to save racehorses from that fate; Canterbury Park raises funds for thoroughbred retirement charities, and the track’s no-slaughter policy bans any trainer found to have sent horses to their deaths.

Still, Hirt’s Michigan farm is completely filled with thoroughbreds saved from the slaughterhouses. “Every rescue [organization] I know of is full,’’ she said. “And I can get horses every week from the kill pens.’’

Tubby Time’s former owners are grateful Hirt’s group was in Pennsylvania that day, sparing their champion from an unthinkable end.

“This has been just devastating,’’ said Erban, who raised Tubby Time on his farm. “They didn’t even feed him. Who does that to a horse?

“This is a real strong lesson to all of us in the business. We are all vulnerable to unethical people. Someone needs to be held accountable.’’

Tubby Time’s rescue

When Tubby Time was found, Hirt said, he weighed 875 pounds — about 200 pounds less than he should have — and had been bitten and scraped up by other horses in the kill pen. But he suffered no serious injuries and has begun regaining weight.

Hirt, a retired school bus driver, helped establish Beyond The Roses three years ago. Friends of her organization monitor the kill pens at horse auctions in several states, looking for thoroughbreds, and they are known to the kill buyers who are looking to make a quick profit. Once they identify former racehorses by the tattoos inside their upper lips, the group uses social media to raise money for “bail’’ — the price on each horse’s head — and the cost of the mandatory one-month stay at a quarantine facility.

Eric Halstrom, Canterbury’s vice president of racing operations, was stunned to receive an e-mail just days after the Kentucky Derby notifying him of Tubby Time’s predicament. With assistance from trainers Dallas and Donna Keen, who run their own rescue organization, he sent money to Hirt to cover the $610 the kill buyer demanded for Tubby Time’s life, plus the quarantine fee.

“Every horse is important,’’ Halstrom said. “But this happened to be a Canterbury champion, a real character at our track. Getting him out of there was the right thing to do.’’

Since Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand was slaughtered in Japan in 2002, dozens of organizations have been created to assist retired racehorses. Some rescue those in danger, as Hirt’s group does. Others retrain horses for second careers and place them with new owners, and some look after horses that cannot be ridden again.

Canterbury Park collects a $2 fee from every horse that starts in its races, then matches those funds and donates them to local thoroughbred retirement charities. Much of that money — about $20,000 per year — goes to Bowman Second Chance Thoroughbred Adoption, founded by Dr. Richard Bowman. Bowman, a state veterinarian who helps oversee horses at Canterbury, has found new homes for hundreds of horses and cares for dozens of unadoptable ones at his North Dakota ranch. The track also works with CANTER Minnesota, another local group that retrains and re-homes racehorses.

Still, thousands end up at places like New Holland Sales Stables, where many thoroughbreds have been saved or lost. That’s where Tubby Time was sent, after Larson thought he had ensured a happy second act for a horse who is 13th on Canterbury’s list of leading thoroughbred money winners.

“We were shocked,’’ Larson said. “When we heard a guy was buying him for his daughter, it sounded like such a good deal. But you have to continue to follow up. It may not be what it seems.’’

The rescue business

Hirt was able to raise the funds to save the other five horses in the kill pen with Tubby Time. Midwest Thoroughbreds, a large stable whose Canterbury Park string is trained by the Keens, donated the money in memory of its own loss. Earlier this year, it sent several horses to a woman who was supposed to retrain and re-home them; the Keens rescued two from a kill pen, and three were slaughtered before they could be saved.

Tubby Time is among more than 30 horses that Beyond The Roses has rescued this year. Hirt’s work takes an emotional toll — “I cry a lot,’’ she said — but she knows there are thousands more like Tubby who need help.

“There is more awareness, and things are getting better,’’ Hirt said. “Hopefully, 10 years from now, we won’t have to save so many horses. Until then, we’ll just keep fighting to save as many as we can, one by one.’’