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A Horse, of Course, but Ragtime Will Be Missed

January 07, 2006|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Although he stood only 29 inches tall, Ragtime the miniature horse cut a super-sized swath.

When neighbors and city officials complained nearly two decades ago about Ragtime living in a Thousand Oaks home, the 175-pound pinto took on City Hall and won, achieving worldwide acclaim as his owners fought to change zoning laws and have him considered a household pet.

Then Hollywood came calling, and the hip-high stallion boosted his appeal with TV appearances and a starring role in the 1998 feature film "The Adventures of Ragtime." He was set to start shooting a new movie this year.

But there will be no more galloping on the silver screen for the clever critter, known for his repertoire of show-biz tricks that included waving, dancing and taking a bow. Ragtime was found dead Tuesday in a Colorado stable where he was moved last week. The cause of death was unknown. He was 19.

Owners Rich and Patty Fairchild are relocating from Simi Valley to Castle Rock, Colo., and were set to reunite with Ragtime and his stablemate, Sassy, this weekend.

The Fairchilds had prepared a bedroom for the horses in the walk-out basement of their new home.

"There will never be another Ragtime," said a tearful Patty Fairchild, an animal trainer by trade. "He loved to show off, and he made so many people laugh. To know him was to love him."

Fairchild said she was uneasy at first when her husband bought Ragtime for her when the horse was only a day old. She had just lost a family pet and didn't want to go through that heartbreak again.

But Ragtime won her over with his penchant for pulling off her slippers and plopping his big head in her lap when she would sit on the lawn.

Then, in 1987, the playful pinto got her into big trouble. Neighbors complained about the horse's presence in their suburban Thousand Oaks neighborhood, and city officials followed with an eviction order. That sparked a two-year court battle that drew worldwide attention. Joan Rivers, then a late-night television host, labeled Ragtime's detractors "stupid" during a nationwide broadcast.

The issue was settled when criminal defense attorney George C. Eskin, now a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge, marched the miniature into court to prove how well the animal behaved. Eskin also subpoenaed a Great Dane from the neighborhood, who caused a courtroom ruckus as Ragtime quietly looked on.

A Ventura County judge declared Fairchild not guilty of violating a city zoning law prohibiting horses and other livestock in suburban neighborhoods. The judge also ruled that Ragtime should be considered a domestic pet, just like a cat or dog.

"It was one of the highlights of my practice," said Eskin, who keeps in his office a brass horse statue given to him by the Fairchilds for his work on the case.

"I will never forget the moment I met Ragtime, when I entered the house in Thousand Oaks and walked through the living room and onto the sun porch, where Ragtime was laying on the sofa watching television," Eskin said. "I'm sad to hear he has passed on."

In 1990, the Fairchilds moved to Simi Valley, where Ragtime got a warmer reception. In fact, the horse was named an ambassador for the city, which honored him in 1995 for his public service in entertaining children and the elderly at community events.

At the ceremony, Ragtime stomped out his age -- 9 at the time -- and waved at the crowd with one leg. He drew laughter and applause when he kissed audience members and untied a man's shoelace.

Fairchild's "crisis certainly propelled that animal to a lot of visibility," said Greg Stratton, Simi Valley's mayor at the time. "I know she was just very happy to have a found a place that tolerated her horse."

It was a desire to be closer to family, not any displeasure with Simi Valley, that prompted the Fairchilds to move to Colorado. They said they intend to conduct a full review of why Ragtime died.

The Fairchilds said they have received many condolence e-mails from Ragtime's fans. At the Texas-based American Miniature Horse Assn., officials also were fielding phone calls and e-mails and planning to feature the horse in the next issue of the group's monthly magazine.

Patty Fairchild said such sentiment helps ease the pain.

"He was a legend, and I want people to remember him that way," she said.

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