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SPORTS WEEKEND

Rider's Firing Adds Intrigue to USC Horse Race

College football: School's decision comes in middle of battle over Traveler.

November 10, 2000|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A legal tussle over Traveler, the white horse that gallops around the field at USC football games, appears to have grown nastier with the recent firing of the mascot's rider.

Ardeshir Radpour says he was dismissed in the middle of his fifth season because university administrators accused him of shouting an obscenity at a fan during a game Oct. 14 against Oregon at the Coliseum.

"I did not say anything obscene or make any gestures," Radpour said. "I did nothing."

A USC attorney declined to comment, but an internal university memo raised questions about Radpour's dismissal and whether it involved more than just the obscenity--namely, the battle over who controls legal rights to the horse's image.

This confrontation involves the Saukko family, which owns a small ranch north of Los Angeles. Richard Saukko began supplying white horses for football games in 1961 and, for many decades, also served as the rider.

After Saukko's death in 1992, his widow, Pat, applied for a trademark on Traveler. The university has taken legal action to oppose her, not wanting an outside party to control something so closely linked to its football team.

Over the course of difficult negotiations, Radpour has openly supported his boss, Saukko. This strained his relationship with the university, he said.

The situation came to a head after the Oregon game when USC sports information director Tim Tessalone wrote a memo claiming that Radpour, while standing in the Coliseum tunnel, shouted an obscenity at an Oregon fan.

Radpour says Tessalone was mistaken, that the obscenity was shouted at him by the fan.

"All I said was, 'Why don't you come down here and tell me,' " Radpour said.

The memo also contained references to the horse's legal status. Tessalone, who has referred all questions to USC general counsel, wrote that he believed Radpour was "the reason for all the Traveler/trademark problems."

A few days later, administrators contacted Saukko, who is under contract to USC.

"They asked me to replace the rider," she said. "I felt bad but this is their show. They have to approve the rider."

The university cited as reasons for dismissal the obscenity and the fact that Traveler had run into a man standing beside the field, Radpour said. No mention was made of the trademark.

"I knew they were going to fire me this year," Radpour said. "I'm the figurehead on the horse."

Saukko's son has since assumed duties as the rider. In the meantime, Radpour--a 30-year-old USC alumnus--has gathered affidavits from people around him at the time of the incident and wants to meet with administrators to discuss getting his job back.

"I still have not heard from them," he said. "Nobody even bothered to call me and say we've got this report, is it true?"

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