There is a chill in the air early on a summer morning at the race track in Ruidoso Downs, N. Mex. Marlboro Men, here by the posse, are big-chested in goose-down vests as they trot by on their palominos and bays. Soon, though, the sun will be up over the pine-shaggy mountains of the Sacramento range where, astride their Yamaha 500s, the Apache still ride. High time to work the horses out before the temperature blazes into the 90s. On Aug. 27, this small, pretty track will see the running of one of the richest horse races in the world, the All American Derby for quarter horses, purse $750,000. No time to fool around.
One of the biggest of the Marlboro Men, white-Stetsoned, aboard a white pony, rides up to Barn 34 at Ruidoso Downs. He is Blane Schvaneveldt, horse trainer, late of Idaho, now of Stanton, Calif. Waiting for him is a smaller man, weathered, hair ginger-going-gray: Ivan Ashment, farmer, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, if the word "farmer" is adequate for a man who ships out 800,000 sacks of potatoes every year and grows about 2,000 acres of barley. He is also the owner of the small bay gelding now nuzzling affectionately into his shoulder. The gelding is Town Policy.
Town Policy's track record is impressive: from June 7 until Oct. 14, 1977, 10 starts, nine wins, earnings of $336,730. Since May 26 of this year, two wins, including a record time of 21.57 in the Los Alamitos Derby, and one second-place finish. His record is also intriguing. With a horse clearly as talented as Town Policy, why the extraordinary blank in mid-career? The answer to that question may never be known in full.
On the night of Oct. 19, 1977, just five days after he won the Fresno Futurity, Town Policy was in his stall at Schvaneveldt's ranch in Stanton, south of the Santa Ana Freeway and east of Long Beach, in a setting that is a dusty amalgam of single-story light-industrial plants and market gardens, with the former clearly winning the battle for space. At some point between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Town Policy disappeared.
The horse, it seemed from his tracks, was led out of his stall to a waiting vehicle, possibly a moving van. Then, it seems, he was driven south across the border.
Schvaneveldt heard the news while he was at the airport, about to leave for a horse sale in Oklahoma. He reached Ashment. "I've got bad news," he said, though a chance still existed that Town Policy had merely strayed.
At first, there didn't seem to be any clear motive for the horsenapping. The horse was a gelding, so there was no question of taking him to a mare. Moreover, his lip tattoo would prevent him from being raced.
For two weeks after Town Policy disappeared, no real lead emerged, though wild rumors reached the ears of Schvaneveldt and Ashment. "We heard he'd been loaded up in a boat in the state of Washington, on his way to Australia," Ashment now recalls with amusement. "Somebody claimed he'd been seen floating in the sea off Long Beach with a notice on him reading, 'I'll teach you to beat me in a race.' " And then, on Nov. 2, a man named Bob Howard made the first of what would prove to be many phone calls.
Howard had once owned Tiny Watch, a champion quarter horse. Now, though, his connection with the track was confined mainly to odd jobs, like shoeing, and betting. Howard was hardly ever out of the complex dealings that marked the search for Town Policy. He telephoned Ashment constantly with news of fresh leads that would result in the horse's recovery. Once he indicated that Ashment should contact a Mexican called Parada living in El Paso. After Ashment had called him, Parada (who has since run into legal problems connected with the possession of heroin) threatened to "take care of him." Ashment says, somewhat lightheartedly, "He might get out of jail, come after me yet...."
Although the motivation for the horsenapping remained in doubt, a connection with drug trafficking seemed plausible, and by now the FBI and other police agencies felt that the horse, if still alive, was in Mexico. In Mexico there is a tradition of private match races between horses owned by wealthy ranchers, with as much as $100,000 being staked on the outcome. Indeed, Town Policy's jockey, Ken Hart, had ridden match races in Mexico, being flown in on chartered aircraft for a win or lose fee of $3,000 for a single race. (Ashment, incidentally, indignantly refutes a Bob Howard "allegation" that pointed at Hart. "He's a grand person," Ashment says. "I'd trust him with my life.")
Howard's credibility with Ashment reached its peak before last Christmas when he persuaded the owner to lend him a horse—New World, a half-brother of Town Policy for whom Ashment had paid $8,500—which he took to El Paso as a kind of live bait, the theory being that he could trade it for Town Policy and so obtain his return. The ploy was fruitless, and Ashment had considerable difficulty getting New World back. When the horse was eventually brought home by Shirley Schvaneveldt, the trainer's wife, he was in bad shape. Friends told Ashment that he was foolish to continue going along with Howard's rainbow-chasing.
The breakthrough, when it came, was from an entirely different source. Ashment is loud in praise for the offers of help he received from many quarters, but the most useful came from an official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He suggested that Tom McCall, for 21 years a livestock inspector for the department, specializing in the cross-border cattle trade, might be given a leave of absence to apply his expertise to the search for Town Policy.
In his long service with the department, McCall had built up an extensive network of agents in Mexico, and some of the $25,000 reward money that Ashment was offering was now used to lubricate the wheels. In less than two months the wheels were turning smoothly. In late February, McCall telephoned Ashment. Both he and Schvaneveldt were to fly down to the city of Chihuahua, where they would meet with McCall on March 7. Town Policy was said to be hidden just outside of Chihuahua, but the trip was unrewarding. From Chihuahua, Ashment, Schvaneveldt and McCall were directed to Durango, where they met with the chief of police, Jaime Garcia de Toro. They drove to a ranch about 14 miles outside the" city that belonged to a man called Leonardo Guerrero, who has since disappeared. No Town Policy, but there were signs that a horse had recently been moved. A ranch hand was arrested. Trainer and owner returned home to await developments, but before that Ashment had asked what would be done to the arrested man to get the story from him. "Maybe we tell him he will be in jail the rest of his life," the police said.
Whatever they did, it worked. Three days later, on March 14, Ashment and his trainer were summoned south again, this time to another Durango ranch. And there, Garcia de Toro showed Ashment his horse. Ashment wept. It was almost five months since he had seen Town Policy.
The horse looked awful. He had lost possibly 150 pounds. But Schvaneveldt concluded that he had suffered no lasting harm. Town Policy was shipped back to California, where Schvaneveldt began to fatten him up and train him. Almost miraculously, a little more than two months later, Town Policy was winning races again—first the trial for the Los Alamitos Derby, then the Derby itself, picking up $57,750. And in June he was shipped to Ruidoso.
Ashment postulates a complex theory on the horsenapping: Town Policy was traded, for possibly a million dollars worth of heroin, to run in private matches, after which he was to be ransomed back to his owner. Indeed, Howard has claimed that Town Policy was run at least twice in Mexico.
The story does not have the perfect happy ending. In the trial for the $450,000 Rainbow Derby, Town Policy ran second and did not compete in the big race on July 3. Neither Schvaneveldt nor Mike Chambless, the assistant trainer who first discovered Town Policy was missing last October, was entirely put out, though. The latter said, "When we ran him he got real tired. Last year, the altitude never affected him [Ruidoso is about 7,000 feet above sea level] but, shoot, this is a year later, he's been through a lot."
Both men hope to see him do far better in the All American Derby. With all that prize money, winning it will be the best way Town Policy has of giving a long, derisive horse laugh to his kidnappers. Whoever they might be.