Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Dirty Part of the Horse World

Somehow a strange book I would not ordinarily read found its way into our house and I picked it up and couldn’t put it down.
by Charlie Leck

Englade, Ken: Hot Blood [St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1996]
I saw the book on the kitchen counter and wondered how it had found its way to our house. It had been officially discarded by the Arapahoe Library District (that’s out in Colorado) and, now, here it was in my house. I read the blurb on the front-inside dust jacket. It concluded…

“From the magnificent estates of Greenwich, Connecticut to the wealthy suburbs of Chicago to the polo fields of Palm Beach to the lavish horse farms of Kentucky, Hot Blood penetrates the close-knit, exclusive, and very rich aristocracy of horse breeders to reveal a tale of greed, betrayal, cruelty, and extraordinary decadence.”

I flipped through the book and saw several pages of photos tucked into the center of the volume. I had met one of the characters (Barney Ward, accused of ordering the killing of 4 horses and pled guilty to 1 count). In the back of the book and appendix listed the characters and how their cases were adjudicated. Several of the names were familiar (Cheska, Lindemann, Jayne).

I felt myself being drawn into the book. I probably should have fought it, but with my hip throbbing and pleading for mercy, I lowered myself into a gigantic easy chair in the living room and turned to the Introduction.

“Unlike most chronicles in this genre that deal with a relatively small number of participants, this story is populated not only by numerous people but by a considerable number of horses as well. There are a lot of names to keep track of…”

“…Steve Miller and his three-man crew of investigators spent four and a half years trying to put all the pieces together… Miller began his journey by deciding to reopen the investigation into the disappearance of Helen Brach, the heiress to the Brach Candy Company fortune, who when she turned up missing in February 1977, became the richest American woman to vanish without a trace.”

“From there, he and his men followed their noses down long, winding trails that sometimes deviated remarkably from where they thought they were going to go…”

“…I have tried to show… that this tale deals with more than the Helen Brach investigation, yet the Brach case is the foundation upon which the whole structure rests. It was the impetus of the investigation and it is the thread that connects all the pieces.”

I was thoroughly hooked and the hours passed as I turned page after page. I was captivated by the dirty, crooked, low-down hangers-on that world of competitive show jumping attracted. It seems like such a glamorous world, but it has a very sleezy side – a list of unimaginably cruel, criminal and immoral characters.

“Smart, hard-driving, ambitious businessmen can make fortunes in boardrooms and manufacturing plants; their wives can thrown unimaginably lavish parties and work themselves into exhaustion for the most deserving charities. Their children can graduate with honors from Ivy League universities. But none of these things can guarantee arrival at a certain social stratum. The quickest and surest road to that brand of success is through horses. And the cost of membership into this group is enormous. Owing a show horse and participating in one or more of the seven thousand or so events that are held around the country each year is not for the marginally well-off or the fiscally timid. Unlike buying cars, airplanes, or yachts, it takes a lot of money to swim in those waters.

“The admission ticket is the horse, and horses are expensive.”

I thought I might only read the prologue of the book, but that account – the horrendous story of a horse being murdered in a way that would make its death look natural – was both terrifying and gripping. And, I recognized the name of the man who had ordered and was paying for the killing. I had seen him jump in competition and I thought highly of him. He would collect big money ($250,000) from the company that insured the horse’s life.

“Giving the horse a final pat, Burns hustled out of the stall and made his way quickly to a nearby brass pole, where he knew from his afternoon visit there was an electrical outlet. Without hesitation, he rammed the male end of the cord into the receptacle. As he had come to learn through vast prior experience, the result was immediate. Charisma dropped as if struck by lightning. Except for the heavy thump when the high-priced animal hit the floor, there was no sound at all, not even a grunt.”

I’d heard my wife talk about Silas Jayne. I had quickly arrived at chapter eight, which dealt with the cruel and maniacal horseman. My wife had told me stories about Jayne and his impatience with people who got in his way or caused trouble for him. He was well-known for drugging his show horses – to keep them performing in spite of painful injuries; but don’t accuse him publically of it. He was a tough and violent man and he thought nothing of having a pipe-bomb dropped in someone’s front yard as a warning.

Silas had a brother, named George, who was quite the opposite in character.

“From all accounts, George and Silas could hardly have been more different. George was known as personable, trustworthy, and honest, while Silas was regarded as a shady character who wasn’t afraid to break the law…

“…In 1961, both Silas and his brother George had horses entered in a show called Oak Brook Hounds, a locally prestigious event. George’s horse was ridden in the competition by his daughter Linda, then fourteen. When George’s horse beat Silas’s, Silas was enraged. ‘I’ll never talk to you again, you bastard!’ he screamed. Then, when another of George’s horses beat Silas’s at a show two years later, Silas was so angry that he promised to kill his brother.

“A few weeks later, a gunman fired twenty-eight rounds into George’s office, but George, sensing trouble, had left the building and driven off in a borrowed car minutes earlier, having left his desk light on and his own vehicle parked outside.”

On an October evening in 1970, George Jayne was playing bridge with his wife, daughter and a son-in-law. The window in the room shattered from an explosion and George had been shot in the chest and died immediately. Two years later, with F. Lee Bailey as his attorney, Silas went on trial for ordering the shooting. He was convicted of conspiring to commit murder. At age 66, he was sentenced to prison and was paroled six years later.

He was only halfway through his sentence, however, when a massive fire in a Wisconsin stable destroyed approximately three dozen horses that were valued at more than 750,000 dollars. When the arsonist was captured and confessed, he claimed Silas Jayne put him up to it. He had been a cell mate of Silas at the Vienna Correction Center in southern Illinois. In 1979, out of prison, Silas was tried for the Wisconsin fire. He was acquitted.

I rose early this morning – on a Saturday when I usually sleep-in a bit. I made a hot mug of coffee and grabbed the book and headed for the big chair. By mid-morning I’d finished it and I was trembling some as I closed it and put my head back to think about what I’d read.

Barney Ward, owner of Castle Hill Farm in Brewster, New York, one of the finest riders I’d ever seen in a show jumping arena, was one of the unseemly characters in the book. Ward had been a member of the U.S. Olympic Team and he was held in high esteem. He was charged with ordering the murder of four thoroughbreds that were well insured. He was convicted on one count. He was sentenced to 33 months in prison and put on probation for three more years. He’s been banned by the American Horse Shows Association (AHSA) from even attending events and the organization’s ban was upheld by a Supreme Court decision.

Now Ward’s son, McClain Ward, is an extraordinary rider on the circuit. Because of his father, he’s always viewed with suspicion and his horses are constantly checked for drugs and other illegalities. It’s tough for the kid. Here’s a remarkable 2010 NY Times story about the problems. It’s a sad story about a young man who appears to be remarkably clean and honest but is punished for the sins of his father.

This is a world I got very close to for a short time. Though there were a few sleazy characters on the periphery of the hunter/jumper world, I generally felt comfortable with the people I met. It wasn’t until the late 90s that I started to hear these stories of horse murders and planned fires. And now, Hot Blood turns up on my kitchen counter. (I’ve since found out that someone gave it to my wife to read.)

Dennis Mitchell was one of the trainers in this riding world while we hung around it. He was also caught up in the scandal and admits to having lied to investigators about his income and finances.

If you want to watch a remarkable video of a great ride by Donald Cheska in a show jumping competition at Madison Square Garden, click here. Cheska’s family was also stained by the horse scandals of the 90s.

Englade is harsh about the hunter/jumper world in his assessment in the epilogue to the book. Nevertheless, I must admit that doping still goes on and winning is so important to many of the competitors that the rules are often seen as part of the competition (that is, they too need to be beaten). This is how Englade ends his book…

“In the meantime, the equine industry likely will continue to operate much as it has always done, with scandal seething just below the surface and bubbling to the top only when the next major investigation commences. One of the most disturbing conclusions to be drawn from the Miller investigation is that those who had their horses cold-bloodedly assassinated were not acting aberrantly, that the industry is saturated with horse owners who see nothing illegal or immoral in having animals murdered simply because they do not perform according to expectations. ‘Tommy Burns isn’t the only horse killer out there,’ Miller commented dourly. ‘And he isn’t even the worst.’”

Other related books…

Gene O’Shea: Unbridled Rage
Bryan Alaspa: Silas Jayne: Chicago’s Suburban Gangster


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  1. That brings back memories from the late 60's and 70's for me. Friends of mine were in the jumping world and went to Madison Square Garden - their trainer was the U.S. Olympics trainer from California. He had guards all over that horse from the time they got there until they left. Their horse took everything they put him in. They went to load up to go home and every tire on the semi for transport was slashed. A guy nearby told them never to come back - there was a contract on the trainer's life. They didn't go back.

  2. Jayne HuddlestonApril 3, 2011 at 5:47 AM

    Correction: Barney Ward was never a member of the U.S. Olympic team

  3. "If you want to watch a remarkable video of a great ride by Donald Cheska in a show jumping competition at Madison Square Garden, click here. Cheska’s family was also stained by the horse scandals of the 90s."
    "stained"? Thats a VERY light way to put it. I met Cheska, went to his farm in wisconson, his family was not "stained".. He killed a horse for insurance money, and was convicted of mail fraud... he is a shady character that still trys to swindle innocent families like mine out of large amounts of money. Pulling out pocket knives as he talks to people, drugging the horses I went to look at to buy. Trying to take little girls horses for free and sell them for their meat money and Not to mention the list of horses I saw at his barn that were going to the slaughterhouse. All the people in the showjumping/hunter world are messed up and sick. I know from first hand experiance.

  4. I must reply to Ms. Weis. Indeed the show jumping/hunter world of horses has some serious problems and is rife with scandals, but I would not label ALL its participants as 'messed up and sick;' and that I also know from first-hand experience. There are plenty of honest, straight-shooters among those who compete in that division of the sport. I know some of them intimately.