There is a chill in the air early on a summer morning at the race track in Ruidoso Downs, N. Mex. Marlboro Men, here by the posse, are big-chested in goose-down vests as they trot by on their palominos and bays. Soon, though, the sun will be up over the pine-shaggy mountains of the Sacramento range where, astride their Yamaha 500s, the Apache still ride. High time to work the horses out before the temperature blazes into the 90s. On Aug. 27, this small, pretty track will see the running of one of the richest horse races in the world, the All American Derby for quarter horses, purse $750,000. No time to fool around.
One of the biggest of the Marlboro Men, white-Stetsoned, aboard a white pony, rides up to Barn 34 at Ruidoso Downs. He is Blane Schvaneveldt, horse trainer, late of Idaho, now of Stanton, Calif. Waiting for him is a smaller man, weathered, hair ginger-going-gray: Ivan Ashment, farmer, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, if the word "farmer" is adequate for a man who ships out 800,000 sacks of potatoes every year and grows about 2,000 acres of barley. He is also the owner of the small bay gelding now nuzzling affectionately into his shoulder. The gelding is Town Policy.
Town Policy's track record is impressive: from June 7 until Oct. 14, 1977, 10 starts, nine wins, earnings of $336,730. Since May 26 of this year, two wins, including a record time of 21.57 in the Los Alamitos Derby, and one second-place finish. His record is also intriguing. With a horse clearly as talented as Town Policy, why the extraordinary blank in mid-career? The answer to that question may never be known in full.
On the night of Oct. 19, 1977, just five days after he won the Fresno Futurity, Town Policy was in his stall at Schvaneveldt's ranch in Stanton, south of the Santa Ana Freeway and east of Long Beach, in a setting that is a dusty amalgam of single-story light-industrial plants and market gardens, with the former clearly winning the battle for space. At some point between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Town Policy disappeared.
The horse, it seemed from his tracks, was led out of his stall to a waiting vehicle, possibly a moving van. Then, it seems, he was driven south across the border.
Schvaneveldt heard the news while he was at the airport, about to leave for a horse sale in Oklahoma. He reached Ashment. "I've got bad news," he said, though a chance still existed that Town Policy had merely strayed.
At first, there didn't seem to be any clear motive for the horsenapping. The horse was a gelding, so there was no question of taking him to a mare. Moreover, his lip tattoo would prevent him from being raced.
For two weeks after Town Policy disappeared, no real lead emerged, though wild rumors reached the ears of Schvaneveldt and Ashment. "We heard he'd been loaded up in a boat in the state of Washington, on his way to Australia," Ashment now recalls with amusement. "Somebody claimed he'd been seen floating in the sea off Long Beach with a notice on him reading, 'I'll teach you to beat me in a race.' " And then, on Nov. 2, a man named Bob Howard made the first of what would prove to be many phone calls.
Howard had once owned Tiny Watch, a champion quarter horse. Now, though, his connection with the track was confined mainly to odd jobs, like shoeing, and betting. Howard was hardly ever out of the complex dealings that marked the search for Town Policy. He telephoned Ashment constantly with news of fresh leads that would result in the horse's recovery. Once he indicated that Ashment should contact a Mexican called Parada living in El Paso. After Ashment had called him, Parada (who has since run into legal problems connected with the possession of heroin) threatened to "take care of him." Ashment says, somewhat lightheartedly, "He might get out of jail, come after me yet...."
Although the motivation for the horsenapping remained in doubt, a connection with drug trafficking seemed plausible, and by now the FBI and other police agencies felt that the horse, if still alive, was in Mexico. In Mexico there is a tradition of private match races between horses owned by wealthy ranchers, with as much as $100,000 being staked on the outcome. Indeed, Town Policy's jockey, Ken Hart, had ridden match races in Mexico, being flown in on chartered aircraft for a win or lose fee of $3,000 for a single race. (Ashment, incidentally, indignantly refutes a Bob Howard "allegation" that pointed at Hart. "He's a grand person," Ashment says. "I'd trust him with my life.")