Skip to main content
Original Issue


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

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."

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.

Last week Claiborne suffered more ill luck when three other valuable mares were killed by lightning. They were Lie Low and Vagabonda, in foal to Nijinsky II and Riva Ridge respectively, and Polka Dot Veil, who was not in foal. The lightning also killed a Lie Low suckling, who was at his dam's side. Meanwhile, Lexington was playing host to Keeneland's big summer yearling sale amid tightened security arrangements and a lot of idle theorizing about the whos and whys of Fanfreluche's abduction.

"I think it was an inside job," said one leading breeder.

"To me, it looks like a bunch of amateurs," volunteered a blonde in a white pajama outfit.

"I heard the Mafia is involved," offered a bloodstock agent through the thick smoke of his imported cigar.

And a psychiatrist said, "Maybe the Martians got her."

None of these people knew that a warrant had just been issued for the arrest of the mysterious McCandless. An itinerant horseman whose last known address was Nashville, McCandless has been working around horses, mainly as a groom, since his release from the Marine Corps 10 years ago. He worked mostly at small tracks like Cahokia Downs in Illinois and Ellis Park near Henderson, Ky. He also held an owner's license in Nebraska in 1975 but it has lapsed. FBI agent Bob Pence said, "As far as we know, he was acting alone but we're not ruling out the possibility that others may be involved." Pence and other agents said that McCandless was recently seen in Texas but that he might be in Tennessee or Kentucky. They said they had no idea where the horse was.

Mrs. G. A. McCandless of Nashville, William Michael's mother, said she was questioned by FBI agents, who told her only that her son had been seen with a large amount of cash. She speculated that the FBI's interest in him might have something to do with the fact that he recently transported a mare owned by her father from Kentucky to Illinois. She had just paid $500 for the horse to be bred to a stallion. "I don't think Mike would do something like this," she said. "He would know that you can't do anything with a horse without the proper papers."

Early in the investigation reporters were told that Fanfreluche often aborts her foals and that she desperately needed a drug called Depo-provera to save her present foal. Police, no doubt, hoped that someone would request the drug of a vet or at a pharmacy, thus providing them with fresh leads. But the announcement also happened to be basically accurate. Fanfreluche lost a foal in 1972 and was barren in two recent years, and Claiborne did administer Depo-provera to her every three weeks. Fanfreluche was last treated with the medication at Claiborne on June 22. Right now, her coveted foal by Secretariat might be in serious trouble. For all anybody knows, the mare could be, too.



On a happier day for owner Levesque, Fanfreluche took the Selene Stakes, one of her 11 career wins.


The South Field, from which Fanfreluche was spirited a way, lies smack in the center of Claiborne Farm.