The remarkable story of Fanfreluche: The American Shergar
As racehorses go, there are few whose names are as enduring as that of Shergar. The brilliant colt became famous after winning the Derby, the Irish Derby and the King George VI Stakes as a three-year-old in 1981, but he became infamous less than two years later when he was stolen from Ballymany Stud in Ireland by masked gunmen in pursuit of a ransom.
Tragically, the horse was never returned and while his fate remains officially unknown, it is widely speculated that he met with a grisly end at the hands of his captors not long after he was seized.
While Shergar is the most widely-known case of a high-profile racehorse being stolen, less than five years earlier there was a case that was just as, if not more remarkable in America. This is the story of Fanfreluche.
A daughter of the great Northern Dancer that was bred and raced by the high-profile Canadian businessman Jean-Louis Lévesque, Fanfreluche was trained by Yonnie Starr in Canada. She proved to be a high-class performer on the racecourse, winning 11 times in Canada and America including the prestigious Alabama Stakes at Saratoga. Indeed, her exploits in 1970 were enough to see her voted Horse of the Year in Canada and share the title of Champion Three-Year-Old Filly in North America.
As talented as she was a racehorse, it was as a broodmare that Fanfreluche left her most lasting legacy. Her first foal was L'Enjoleur, winner of the prestigious Queen's Plate and crowned Horse of the Year in Canada in both 1974 and 1975.
That proved to be a sign of things to come, as in the years that followed she bred two more horses that would be crowned champions in Canada with La Voyageuse achieving champion status in three consecutive seasons from 1978-80 and Medaille D’Or being crowned Champion Two-Year-Old in 1978. However, it was while La Voyageuse and Medaille D’Or were still unraced youngsters in June 1977 that the drama began with Fanfreluche.
Having been sent to the world-renowned Claiborne Farm in Kentucky to be covered by the great American Triple Crown winner Secretariat in 1975, Fanfreluche had been returned to Canada and delivered a colt in 1976 that would later be named Medaille D’Or.
While she wasn’t covered in 1976, Jean-Louis Lévesque decided to send Fanfreluche back to Kentucky for a return visit to Secretariat in 1977. Having been covered and confirmed as being pregnant, Fanfreluche was being kept at Claiborne with a view to being shipped back to Canada in September when her story took a sinister twist.
On June 25th 1977, Fanfreluche was one of a group of nine mares turned out in a paddock at Claiborne Farm that was no more than 200 yards from the front door of stud owner Seth Hancock’s home. When the field was checked at 4pm all nine mares were present, but when they were checked again at 6:30pm, only eight mares were in the field. Fanfreluche was missing.
Further investigation led to the discovery of some hay close to a boundary fence which was suspected to have been used to coax the mares over to the edge of the paddock. A gap had been cut in the fence at that spot and was then hastily repaired after the mare had been led out through it, the likely hope being that repairing the fence might delay attention being drawn to what had taken place. The mare was then likely to have been loaded into a horsebox before being transported away.
The Kentucky State Police and the FBI quickly became involved and an early theory was that the theft may have been politically motivated. Jean-Louis Lévesque’s home had been bombed by Quebec separatists that were angered by his support of Canadian unity on the same day that Fanfreluche had finished second in the Queen’s Plate in 1970. With Fanfreluche having disappeared on the day the Queen’s Plate was being run seven years later, it wasn’t surprising that many found it difficult to consider it a coincidence.
However, with no political group claiming responsibility for the theft and no ransom demand being received, the motive for the crime remained a mystery. Lévesque and Claiborne Farm put up a reward of $25,000 (equivalent to over $100,000 nowadays) for information leading to her discovery, but that led to more nuisances than anything else.
There was finally a break in the case a month after the theft when the FBI issued an arrest warrant for 30-year-old William Michael McCandless, a Kentucky-bred grandson of a racehorse trainer that served two years with the Marine Corps in Vietnam prior to working as an exercise rider at minor racetracks.
McCandless handed himself in a week after the arrest warrant was issued, but having been released after posting bail, he went on the run and the Fanfreluche case went cold once again.
The more time that went by, the more remote the chances of Fanfreluche being found alive seemed to get, but just as suddenly as she had gone missing, she was found again. On December 8th, over five months after her disappearance, acting on a tip-off, the FBI found her on a tiny three-acre farm owned by Larry McPherson in Tompkinsville 150 miles away from Claiborne.