He Was A Horse That Never Won A Race. So Why Would Someone Steal Him? On Christmas Eve 2004, Urgent Envoy disappeared from his stable in the middle of the night. He had finished his only ever race in last place, but that didn't matter to the trainer who took him.
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He Was A Horse That Never Won A Race. So Why Would Someone Steal Him?

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He Was A Horse That Never Won A Race. So Why Would Someone Steal Him?

He Was A Horse That Never Won A Race. So Why Would Someone Steal Him?

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In horse racing, there has been bad news all year from Santa Anita Park in Southern California. Just this month, at the Breeders' Cup Classic, a horse fractured its leg, and it was later euthanized. It was the 37th horse to die in less than a year after racing and training at the track. Some say danger has always been part of the sport. NPR's Taylor Haney brings us a story that gets personal for him. It's about a horse trainer who says she took drastic action years ago to save a horse's life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAYLOR HANEY, BYLINE: I grew up going to the Santa Anita racetrack. Just down the street from my childhood home, I learned to size up horses, put money on the long shots and cheer them down the backstretch. In my memory, it's not a place where horses die, which brings me to Gail Ruffu, a horse trainer who hates how these horses are trained. Years ago, in California, she loved a horse so much that she stole it. She remembers first meeting this horse. It was dangerous, untamed. It had already broken the finger of an old woman.

GAIL RUFFU: He was a bit of an outlaw (laughter). And, of course, that'd be the one for me.

T HANEY: She named him Urgent Envoy.

RUFFU: And I didn't treat him like an outlaw, and he immediately responded by being a really nice horse, a good boy.

T HANEY: Ruffu had trained some horses in the past, but this was her chance to train a winner. She made a deal with an attorney who used to represent her. She'd once been banned from a track, and he'd got her reinstated and won her some money. He and his friends bought Urgent Envoy for $5,000. They bankrolled it. Ruffu trained it as a co-owner. She'd seen horses collapse and die on the track. So she tried something unconventional - she trained their horse slowly, drug-free. She says, then and now, horses are trained too young, too hard and too numb from medication and all for money.

You think greed is behind a lot of this?

RUFFU: Oh, definitely. A million-dollar purse for one race? People are willing to throw away several dead horses trying to get that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: They're at the post.

T HANEY: In a year, Urgent Envoy is at the starting line. It's a test for Ruffu's unusual methods.

RUFFU: That first race didn't go well.

T HANEY: It's June 16, 2004, at Hollywood Park. The jockey wears green and white. Urgent Envoy starts in first position on the inside rail.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: They're off.

T HANEY: He breaks badly, near the back of the pack.

RUFFU: The jockey was terrified and just did a horrible job of riding him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Rush Country is fifth. He's got 10 to come. First time starter Urgent Envoy races next. He's 11th from the front.

T HANEY: He swings wide in the final turn and finishes dead last.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: ...Right together. Great. Victory, I think, got up in the final desperate stride (ph).

T HANEY: This is where Ruffu and her co-owners started to clash. Urgent Envoy had another race in three weeks. He got a sore shin, and Ruffu wanted to rest him.

RUFFU: I contacted the partners and said, I'm scratching him from that race; the vet has recommended at least two weeks of rest.

T HANEY: She says the lawyer didn't want to wait. He and the other co-owners voted Ruffu out. He picked a new trainer and came to take the horse away. And he brought muscle.

RUFFU: Three security guards and a big, old greasy truck driver and a van.

T HANEY: It's a showdown at Santa Anita Park.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

T HANEY: This account comes from "Grand Theft Horse," a graphic novel written about Gail Ruffu's life. The author is Ruffu's cousin, Greg Neri. Here he is reading from the scene.

GREG NERI: (Reading) We're here to take that horse.

RUFFU: They literally...

NERI: (Reading) Out of my way.

RUFFU: ...Attacked me.

NERI: (Reading) And this big guy is pulling on the horse's rein, and the horse is pulling back the other way.

RUFFU: And then they grabbed me.

STEVE HANEY: There was no big guy.

T HANEY: This is Steve, the LA lawyer who'd helped bankroll Urgent Envoy.

S HANEY: Gail wasn't arrested or apprehended or even physically restrained.

RUFFU: They held me down by my arms in the dirt.

S HANEY: That never happened.

RUFFU: They took the horse and put him on the van and drove him away.

T HANEY: Records show Ruffu went to the police, and at the time, she told them she tried to grab the horse's halter from a guard and was struck on the arm. The lawyer says she wasn't touched.

RUFFU: The minute they were holding me down, I was saying to him, mentally, don't you worry; I'm coming for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

T HANEY: It's midnight, Christmas Eve 2004. The stables are dead quiet. Ruffu puts Urgent Envoy into a trailer, slips past a security guard and drives off.

S HANEY: And this is literally Christmas morning, with the presents under the tree and the whole family excited.

T HANEY: Steve remembers the email Ruffu sent the co-owners.

S HANEY: And she said, Merry Christmas, boys. As far as I'm concerned, the gloves were off because she wasn't just stealing our horse; she was rubbing it in our face.

T HANEY: Then what happens?

S HANEY: Well, we got the police involved. We got investigators involved trying to find her. And we got it narrowed down to an area. And Mom and I went over there, and - Mom's my wife, of course, your mom.

T HANEY: Here's where I got to confess - the lawyer here is Steve Haney, my dad. He's the villain in Ruffu's story. And in the book her cousin Greg Neri wrote, he's rendered as a wicked lawyer bent on revenge. This was the first time I'd heard anyone else's version of this story. I definitely remembered the Christmas my dad found out Urgent Envoy was gone and rushed off to the stables, and I remembered the private detective, the years of lawsuits.

HUNTER HANEY: I remember this was going on forever.

T HANEY: I even called up my older brother Hunter, who was 17 when Urgent Envoy disappeared, to see if he remembered why our dad fought this so hard.

H HANEY: It became just such a personal thing for both of them.

T HANEY: My dad says it all cost him and his co-owners $100,000, all for a $5,000 horse that had lost its only race badly. But my brother and I recognized this was not about money.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

H HANEY: Gail and Dad are both such litigious people that neither of them would back down.

RUFFU: He had two personalities.

S HANEY: Truthfulness is not her strong characteristic.

RUFFU: They were willing to kill him...

S HANEY: That's crazy.

RUFFU: ...In pursuit of money from an insurance policy.

S HANEY: We wanted to handle it in a civilized fashion. But just by the nature of Gail, that's an impossibility.

T HANEY: Ruffu was charged with a felony count of grand theft horse, and a jury acquitted her. She sued back and lost a civil case, and she lost her training license for years, stalling whatever career she'd had. Judges ordered her to give the horse back. She never did.

RUFFU: I figured, whatever it takes, even if I go to jail, I have to save this horse's life.

T HANEY: Gail Ruffu's story has always been she rescued this horse from a broken system. And sure, look at Santa Anita's record alone - 37 horses dead since last December. The system clearly needs to change. But in the case of Urgent Envoy, an investigation by the California Horse Racing Board found the new trainer treated its injured leg according to a veterinarian's orders. This isn't really about the way horses are treated; it's a story about what these two stubborn people would do to right a wrong done to them. And the winner gets to own the narrative.

Is this a love story in some way?

RUFFU: Yes, it is. Definitely. The fact that I was able to rescue him successfully - very gratifying. Would have been more gratifying to have had him become a millionaire racehorse and then kept him safe for the rest of his life (laughter). Wasn't meant to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE GALLOPING)

NERI: Whoa.

T HANEY: To promote his book, Greg Neri posted a video online.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NERI: Maybe you could tell me what you like about this horse, physically. Like, what are the attributes? And show us...

RUFFU: Mainly that he's really sound (laughter).

NERI: Yeah.

T HANEY: Ruffu's showing him an enormous thoroughbred - chestnut with a white spot on its forehead and a code name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NERI: Ahab, aka Urgent Envoy. Going to run a little bit.

T HANEY: This happy-looking horse trotting around a paddock, rolling in the dirt. Neri says, this is Urgent Envoy - now 18 and still hidden to this day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

T HANEY: I sent my dad the video of Ahab, aka Urgent Envoy. He'd spent so much time and money chasing the horse. Was it still worth it to him? After he saw the video, he called up the horse's only other living buyer, his 82-year-old father.

S HANEY: The first words out of his mouth were, you and I should get a trailer and go out there and take the horse back.

T HANEY: Really? You think you would still want to get the horse back today?

S HANEY: Yeah, I think I would. I just think it's the right thing to do. It's not a practical decision; I just hate to see a wrong go unpunished.

T HANEY: Which makes sense. My dad prides himself on success in the courtroom. I've seen him in action, where he's comfortable and persuasive and almost always wins. But even his talents in the courtroom didn't bring the horse back. It's hard not to feel bitter about that.

S HANEY: I don't think she has suffered from the experience; I think she's benefited. I think she's won, and I'm a sore loser.

T HANEY: If winning comes first, before anything else, then the fight is always worth it. Talking to my dad, I like to imagine a different kind of future for myself, one where I can lose and still know how to walk away.

Taylor Haney, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "DOGWOOD ACRES")

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