But Ellsworth was to discover that even if you make these Houdini escapes half a dozen times, you can't do it forever. Nigromante died suddenly, and the big stable of mares was without a top sire. Credit became tougher to come by, until Ellsworth latched on to C. Arnholt Smith of San Diego, at that time owner, among other things, of the baseball Padres and the U.S. National Bank. Smith kept Rex going—at least until the U.S. Government became curious about the way Smith was handling his own bank's funds. Now the Crocker Citizens National Bank has taken over the U.S. National, and Smith is under indictment.
So the money well ran dry. Early last December, Chino neighbors of Ellsworth's began noticing that his broodmares had taken on the droopy, lean look of sufferers from malnutrition. Karen Patterson, whose husband Harris is a director of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, was among the first to alert the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Two weeks ago, armed with evidence, the SPCA moved in and discovered unbelievable squalor. Of the 130 horses on the place (most of them broodmares), five lay dead or dying in their hard and dusty paddocks and dozens of others were in terrible shape. Four mares aborted because of their condition.
"It was pathetic," said George M. Crosier of the SPCA. "Those in pasture had stripped the land literally bare looking for food. They were even eating their own droppings." The SPCA impounded the Chino stock.
What was puzzling was that about 20 other horses at Chino, those in stall spaces with runs, were sufficiently fed and watered. Another 20 had reportedly been moved to an Arizona ranch just hours before the authorities arrived. The condition of the starving mares led to suspicions that the situation might be a matter of conscious and calculated neglect. Even more puzzling was the presence of Ellsworth's son Rumen at the ranch, since Kumen Ellsworth happens to be a veterinarian. He tried to negotiate with SPCA officials to regain possession of the impounded horses, but the SPCA would not release them. Some of the animals were being fed by the SPCA on a round-the-clock schedule in an effort to save them.
Rex Ellsworth was not there when the SPCA moved in to start caring for the stock at a cost of $700 a day. When finally contacted at another son's ranch in Louisiana, Ellsworth gave such excuses as wells going dry in Chino, which Crosier said was not so—"There was water everywhere," reported the SPCA official—and increasing financial difficulty. "We haven't been able to feed the horses as we normally do," Ellsworth said. He made an odd comment on the matter of the dead mares. "Horses are dying all the time out on that ranch," he said. "We've got 40 or 50 old mares with problems that should have been destroyed years ago."
Such explanations may not satisfy anyone, particularly now that the SPCA has filed a 21-page report on the conditions it discovered at the ranch with the San Bernardino County district attorney's office. Criminal action is possible, along with the civil procedures initiated by the SPCA.
Last weekend, as Ellsworth drove west from Louisiana to his Arizona ranch, on the way apparently to face the music in California, racing was trying to get over the shock of one of its worst scandals. "This is a black mark on our industry," said Brian Sweeney, the general manager of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, "but we are determined that racing will pitch in and do the right thing. What we will do, in conjunction with the American Horse Council and the California tracks, is to underwrite any and all unrecovered expenses incurred by the SPCA while it is caring for the weakened mares. There is talk about a sale of the stock, but that's in the future. It will take time to identify these horses properly, and it will take half of them three to four months to regain marketable shape."
Ellsworth, once a director of the CTBA, is still a paid-up member, although along the backstretch it was often said of his spectacular rise to international racing fame that neither he nor Mish Tenney would have made it had they not considered a two-by-four and a chain part of a trainer's equipment. Tenney, who never had a contract with his ranching buddy, was always in for a split, depending, it seems, on the financial times. When Tenney at last quit a few years ago to return to Arizona and run a cattle ranch, the story has it that he went to the boss to get his final split. Ellsworth told him bluntly there was nothing left to split.
And now, for Ellsworth, after the steep rise comes the crashing fall. Like others who play their hands badly, Rex Ellsworth has ended up land-poor, horse-poor and just plain poor. The SPCA revealed that it had many calls from businesses, lending agencies, banks and individuals who claimed that they held liens on various thoroughbreds that Ellsworth had put up as security on loans. There was even a question whether Ellsworth still owned the ranch.
"It reminds me," says Santa Anita's Jimmy Kilroe, "of an ageless but possibly appropriate remark I heard many years ago. There are two things a cowboy knows nothing about: one is a cow, the other is a horse.' "