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THE MILLION-DOLLAR HORSE HEIST
Mike DelNagro
August 01, 1977
When Fanfreluche (above), a mare in foal to Secretariat, was stolen from her paddock, the mood at Claiborne Farm turned bluer than the grass. Motive? Fanfreluche's whereabouts? Police have only the name of a suspect
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August 01, 1977

The Million-dollar Horse Heist

When Fanfreluche (above), a mare in foal to Secretariat, was stolen from her paddock, the mood at Claiborne Farm turned bluer than the grass. Motive? Fanfreluche's whereabouts? Police have only the name of a suspect

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On Sunday morning, half an hour after Claiborne reported the theft, Kentucky State Police Detective Robert Duffy was brought into the case. In 10 years as a state trooper Duffy had come upon only one horse theft, involving a missing Appaloosa worth $300. He had worked most recently on the investigation of the grisly fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Covington, which took 161 lives. At 9:30 a.m. Bob Bird, a 20-year FBI veteran, was assigned to assist in the Claiborne investigation. Bird once cracked a stolen-cattle caper, but he admitted knowing little about thoroughbreds. "I guess the FBI picked me because I was raised on a farm," he said.

The investigators called for road checkpoints to be set up throughout Kentucky and surrounding states. They notified the media of the theft and began interviewing Claiborne employees and neighbors. Phone tips started trickling in, but most were grudge calls or pranks. One caller blurted out that the mare could be found in Ohio and hung up hastily.

By Sunday night Duffy and Bird had turned up some clues. A plastic garbage bag, half filled with alfalfa hay, was found near the spot where the fence had been cut. A set of hoofprints was discovered, leading from the fence to Hancock's driveway. A neighbor reported that a silver Ford LTD had been parked by the field off Route 627 on each of the three days preceding the theft. Another neighbor saw a green pickup towing an empty aluminum two-horse van near Claiborne at 4:40 p.m. on the day itself. He was sure of the time because he had been waiting for a friend, frequently checking his watch. A farmhand saw the same truck five miles farther down the road, on the other side of Claiborne, some 20 minutes later. "This is no fraternity prank or one-man job," Bird concluded. "Somebody knew the score."

The investigators pieced together a scenario. The thieves had surveyed the area for three days, feeding the mares over the fence to train them to come for food as a daily routine. On June 25 they backed a van into Hancock's driveway and parked it at a spot where, with an oak on one side and a sugar maple on the other, the view from all three nearby houses was perfectly blocked. They may or may not have known that Hancock was playing golf at the time. They lured the mares to the fence, singled out Fanfreluche and, using a bolt cutter, severed the mesh. As the mare was loaded into the van, which was no mean feat because she is a stubborn animal ("You had to be an experienced horseman to work with her," says a farm employee who knew her well), another of the group tied the fence back together with thin wire. Then the thieves drove off.

Bird and Duffy figured that the motive might be extortion. Nelson Bunker Hunt once had a horse stolen from him in Italy. The thieves demanded ransom but Hunt ignored them. The horse was recovered, skinny and sick, in a butcher shop where it was about to be slaughtered. Last year three masked men with submachine guns spirited away two standardbred stallions from a Canadian farm and demanded $200,000. The money was dropped off at the designated spot, and the horses were recovered and the members of the gang captured.

Another possibility was political terrorism. The mare's owner, Jean-Louis Levesque, is board chairman of Levesque, Beaubien, Inc., a brokerage firm, and a French Canadian who in the past has been a target for Quebec terrorists. He is a distant relative of Rene Levesque, head of Parti Quebecois, the governing separatist party committed to the province's independence and to French-language dominance. But Jean-Louis Levesque believes in federalism and bilingualism. Just before the Queen's Plate in 1970, Levesque's home was bombed by separatists who were angered that so prominent a French Canadian had chosen to participate in a race closely associated with monarchy and federalism. Fanfreluche ran that day and finished second. She disappeared from Claiborne on Queen's Plate day, and some people feel it was no coincidence. But terrorists usually take prompt and noisy credit for their deeds; the Claiborne theft was followed by silence.

If not extortion or politics, then what? Could the thieves seriously be planning to keep Fanfreluche? Without registration papers they can neither breed nor race the future foal. However, assuming the thieves own a second pregnant mare registered by The Jockey Club, it is conceivable that they might contrive to switch foals next winter. In 1975 two yearlings were stolen from Keeneland during the annual sales. They never turned up. One of them, a Bagdad colt, is owned by Lexingtonian Bob Stilz. His wife Sue, a National Car Rental agent at the Lexington airport, has given up hope that the colt will ever be found. She wonders if he is being raced somewhere. "You know," she says wistfully, "he'd be three now and he had no distinguishing markings—just like Seattle Slew."

Horse identification has long been difficult. Lip tattoos wear off and can be changed. Night eyes, the rough patches on the insides of a horse's legs, are considered reliable, but only in New York has a system utilizing them been highly developed. Last August a blood-type registration program was begun. As of January 1979, every stallion's blood type must be on file with The Jockey Club. Starting the same year, broodmares will be registered as to blood type, too. Although these programs cannot positively identify the sire of a foal, 94% of the time they will be able to eliminate a sire or dam as a possible parent. The Jockey Club can demand a blood test of any registered horse, and recently it has turned up bogus registrations in this way.

As Levesque waited at his phone, Sunday dragged into Monday but no ransom demand was received. There was a flurry of activity on Monday night when it was learned that a planeload of thoroughbreds had just left nearby Greater Cincinnati Airport for France. Could the mare be one of the 15 aboard? The head of the shipping agency was questioned closely and French authorities were asked to meet the jet and check its cargo. At dawn word came that there was no mare in the shipment fitting Fanfreluche's description.

Weeks passed but few additional clues were found. Claiborne posted a $25,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of Fanfreluche's abductors. Investigators in Kentucky received a letter from a woman in California who claimed to be psychic. She said she dreamed she saw the mare in a blue barn with horse manure piled in front of it. A search for a blue barn was begun, just in case. Sometimes, Duffy explained, people have strange ways of telling police the things they know. "We're just playing the waiting game," Bird said.

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