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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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Calls from millionaire horse owners jammed the switchboard, reporters clamored outside the door and cops hovered about, searching for clues. Sitting in his office at Kentucky's Claiborne Farm, the most celebrated thoroughbred stud farm in the U.S., Seth Hancock fretted and fidgeted. "Slipped foals, freak broken legs, horses struck by lightning—it's all part of running a farm," the 27-year-old owner said, "but this!"

The cause of Hancock's consternation was a daring daylight theft on Saturday, June 25, in which Fanfreluche, a 10-year-old mare in foal to Secretariat, was removed from a paddock not 500 feet from Hancock's front door. In the following weeks, frustration over the theft mounted as investigators checked out scores of tips (and consulted with at least one psychic) in a vain effort to locate the missing mare. The mystery was only compounded last week when the FBI obtained a fugitive warrant for a 30-year-old Vietnam veteran named William Michael McCandless, whom agents identified vaguely as a "horse fancier." The FBI not only declined to discuss details of McCandless' suspected involvement with the horsenapping but they also refrained from speculating on the whereabouts of Fanfreluche.

From the start, it was a case that Dick Francis might have concocted in one of his horse-and-dagger novels. At 4 p.m. on the day Fanfreluche disappeared, a farmhand counted nine broodmares in Claiborne's South Field at Barn No. 4. Two and a half hours later, the night man counted eight. The missing mare was Canada's Horse of the Year in 1970 and winner of 11 races and $238,688 during her racing career. As a broodmare her value had soared. She had produced four foals, all of which became race winners. Her first was a colt called L'Enjoleur who won the Queen's Plate—Canada's Kentucky Derby. Another was LaVoyageuse, a 2-year-old filly who romped home by four lengths in the first race of her life at Canada's Woodbine track in May. Any reckoning of Fanfreluche's value must take into account that the nine Secretariat yearlings sold at auction brought an average price of $377,778, that last week a Secretariat yearling sold for $725,000 at Keeneland, and that Fanfreluche might bear another dozen foals. She may well be a million-dollar mare.

Yet at first no one was overly concerned about her disappearance. Horses often run into fences and sometimes jump them. She probably was in another paddock, the thinking went. Early the next morning, workers at Claiborne routinely stepped up the search. One of the farmhands walked the fencerow, hoping to find a swatch of horsehair or something that would indicate where the mare broke free. What he found instead was a crude patch in the boxed-wire fence. It had been cut and then hastily repaired.

It was 9 a.m. and Claiborne security chief Eugene Flora phoned the police. Within minutes a message was flashed across the country: ATTEMPT TO LOCATE. STOLEN, 6/25, FROM CLAIBORNE FARM IN BOURBON COUNTY, KY., THOROUGHBRED MARE. HAS TATTOO NUMBER W12997 INSIDE UPPER LIP, COLOR BAY; HAS WHITE STAR ON FOREHEAD AND WHITE RINGS ABOVE REAR HOOVES. Meanwhile, a Kentucky highway-patrol vehicle pulled into a driveway at Claiborne. Soon more police arrived, and then more police.

It was an unlikely scene. Claiborne houses 325 of the world's finest broodmares, hundreds of blue-blooded sucklings and yearlings, and 24 stallions alone worth roughly $50 million. Off just one sycamore-lined path are Secretariat, Riva Ridge, Round Table and Hoist The Flag. Tom Rolfe, Damascus, Buckpasser and other coveted studs graze nearby. Success often breeds enemies, but Hancock does not believe that Claiborne Farm was the target of the horsenappers. "If they had a grudge against me," he says, "wouldn't they just pick up a rifle and shoot one of those stallions?"

The farm consists of 3,200 acres of rolling hills near Paris, Ky., part of the six-county area surrounding Lexington that is called the Bluegrass. It is sprawling, but not defenseless as farms go. At night four auxiliary gates are locked and a sentry guards the main entrance. Eight security police, in trucks equipped with searchlights and radios, comb the fields while a ninth man patrols the roadways in a police car. During daylight hours 140 employees bustle about the farm. They say no one roams there unnoticed. But on June 25 somebody did.

The thieves somehow knew where Fanfreluche was paddocked, although Claiborne takes enormous care to conceal the whereabouts of its horses. There are no maps of the layout or signs on the barns, and listings of current boarders are not made available to the public. Remarkably, too, there is not a single brochure. Horses are identified by 1"-by-2" nameplates on their head collars; the lettering is indecipherable at a distance of more than six or seven feet. While thousands of tourists visit the farm annually, they see only the stallions, and a groom is always present. Mares are off limits. Even horsemen cannot see one unless the mare's owner allows it.

The South Field of Barn 4 lies near the center of Claiborne Farm. It is enclosed by a 50-inch-high Elwood fence—wire mesh attached to wooden posts. A horizontal plank is nailed across the top. Horsemen consider the Elwood safer than the state's celebrated white-board fencing because horses cannot get their legs caught in it. Elwoods are also tougher to break open. The south fence of the field runs along Route 627, a two-lane road from Paris to Winchester that cuts Claiborne in half. The north and west fences abut other fields. The east fence runs directly in front of Hancock's 24-room Victorian house. Between the field and the house there is a driveway that exits on Route 627 and is never guarded. Inside the field is a smaller house, occupied by Harold Jolly, a vet's helper at Claiborne. Foreman Bill Purcell lives across Route 627 and also has a view of the field. "No farm is perfectly secure," says Hancock. "I could steal a horse from most of them myself. But that field? If you told me last week that a mare might be stolen from there, I'd have bet 20 to 1 you were wrong."

Two factors did favor the thieves. Since the end of the breeding season in mid-June, the mares had grazed in the fields 24 hours a day and were never moved from paddock to paddock, which presumably made it easier for the thieves to assay the situation. Secondly, no horse had been stolen from Claiborne in its 75-year history. "If I'd seen a mare being walked to a van out there," Hancock admitted, pointing to the road, "I'd figure she was shipping rank and I'd ask the people if they needed help."

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