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She took the tack of hiding the horse

Gail Ruffu says she spirited the steed from Hollywood Park to protect him. Others call it theft.

January 20, 2007|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

In the middle of the night on Christmas Eve two years ago, a woman slipped onto the grounds of Hollywood Park and spirited a racehorse named Urgent Envoy past a guard.

The horse has been in hiding ever since -- despite the efforts of prosecutors and private detectives.

Urgent Envoy is no Seabiscuit. He came in last in his only race, and many in California racing view the situation as nothing more than an odd battle over a $5,000 horse that now, at age 6, has little chance of becoming a champion.

But Urgent Envoy's feuding owners say there are serious principles at stake.

Gail Ruffu, the horse's onetime trainer who slept in a barn with him and risked going to jail rather than reveal his hideout's location, said she took a stand to save him from a training regimen of drugs and injuries that could have killed him.

"You can threaten me with the electric chair, but I'm not giving him back as long as he is in danger," said Ruffu, 57, sitting next to a space heater in the drafty tack room in Sunland where she recently moved. "What I would like to see is public awareness of this, to change the standard."

Talk like that piques Ruffu's onetime partner, Steve Haney, who put together a group to buy Urgent Envoy and has now spent more on private investigators trying to get the horse back than he paid for him in the first place. "It's not about abuse. It's about her wanting to have that horse all to herself," Haney said.

The caper comes at a time when the horse-racing industry is grappling with the appropriate role for medication and performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids. Last year, California became the first state to begin randomly testing horses to deter the use of banned substances such as the hormone erythropoietin.

Nevertheless, most in horse racing view it as a bit of a sideshow. Ruffu's methods are unorthodox, her ideas about training unusual. And Haney and his partners are not big players in the industry, never having owned a horse before.

Ruffu, who says she was "born saying 'horsie' instead of 'mama,' " grew up in Texas and got her first horse at age 14. But it was not until her family moved to Europe when she was 17 that she studied riding seriously.

Back in California, she began at the bottom, as a hot walker, meaning she led horses on cool-down walks after exercise. She worked primarily at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park.

She seems always to have been an eccentric presence, and it rubbed some people the wrong way -- including a rider with whom she got into a dispute in 1997 that led to Ruffu's hiring a lawyer.

That lawyer was Haney. At the time, the two got along well, and after the case was over, Haney told Ruffu that if she ever found a horse she liked, she should give him a call.

In 2003, Ruffu found Urgent Envoy. Haney put together a partnership, and they bought the horse for $5,000. In addition to 20% ownership, Ruffu would be given $1,000 a month for the horse's upkeep.

Ruffu and the horse eventually moved into Santa Anita and slept in a barn at the track.

Ruffu said she wanted Urgent Envoy to be a shining example of a horse trained without "steroids or pain-masking drugs." Steroids are permitted in California racing as long as they are not detected in post-race blood or urine tests. Set amounts of anti-inflammatories also are allowed.

Drugs have been a major topic of debate in the $26-billion horse racing industry for several years, said Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, and there is talk of banning anabolic steroids.

Even in this context, Ruffu's views were extreme. She said Urgent Envoy never got so much as an aspirin when she was training him.

But her regimen unsettled Haney and the other partners.

"She would take the horse to the track, and instead of training it in a traditional way, she would just ride the horse around like five or six miles a day," he said. "It was almost like she wanted everyone to see she had a thoroughbred racehorse, riding it around."

For 10 months, Ruffu trained Urgent Envoy for his first race. "He did a one-mile workout in a minute and 40 seconds, and that is considered a very nice one-mile workout," she said.

The last-place finish at Hollywood Park on June 16, 2004, wasn't so bad either, she said. "He was only 10 lengths behind the winner, so it wasn't that bad of a performance, really, for a first-time start."

Haney assessed his investment's progress differently.

"I was embarrassed. Not just because of the finish, but because he couldn't participate in the post parade because he hadn't been taught how to walk with the other horses.... It just looked like he wasn't prepared."

On July 7, the day before Urgent Envoy was to race a second time, a veterinarian noticed the horse had a sore shin, according to Ruffu. "Most trainers would just give him pain-masking drugs and go ahead and run him," she said, "but it could make the injury worse, and obviously, for me, no question, he was getting a couple weeks' rest."

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