Kevin Blake

    Kevin Blake tells the story of brilliant race and broodmare Fanfreluche, who can be considered, the American Shergar.
  • Monday 22 May 2017
  • Blog

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.

McPherson kept horses on his small holding as a hobby and told investigators that in late-June a neighbour had called him to tell him that one of his horses had got out onto the road. When he went to investigate, he found an unfamiliar bay mare wandering the roadside with no head collar and rope burns on various parts of her body.

After no one in the locality claimed her as their own, McPherson reported his find to the local sheriff and took her in alongside his pony, his quarter horse and his palomino in the hope that someone would eventually claim her. While he and presumably the local sheriff had heard about the Fanfreluche case, the notion that the 10-year-old mare he found wandering the roads could be her seemingly never entered their minds.

In the months that followed, Fanfreluche was kept in a disused lumber shed with a small grazing area behind the McPherson’s mobile home and went by the name of Brandy. McPherson and his family even rode her around the three-acre plot on a number of occasions!

Indeed, such was the impression that she made on McPherson, he turned down a $200 offer for her a couple of weeks before the FBI came knocking on his door, reportedly being reluctant to sell a horse that he didn’t consider his to sell. The FBI quickly identified the mare as being Fanfreluche and she returned to Claiborne where it was confirmed that she was still safely in foal.

With the FBI having quickly established that the McPhersons had no role in the crime that was committed, their attentions quickly returned to finding the fugitive William Michael McCandless. They would have to be patient, as it wasn’t until June 1983, six years after Fanfreluche’s abduction, that McCandless was brought to trial to answer charges relating to the case.

He had finally been apprehended in Nashville in 1981, accused of involvement in a large-scale tractor-theft ring and ended up being given a sentence of 10 years in federal prison for that. It was while serving that sentence that he stood trial for the theft of Fanfreluche and was given four years in jail.

That wouldn’t prove to be the only time McCandless came to attention for the wrong reasons in American horse racing. In the mid-90s there were several worrying cases of horses having sponges inserted up their noses prior to races with the intention of making them run poorly.

It wasn’t until May 1998, two years after the first case of this emerged, that a federal grand jury indicted McCandless on a series of charges relating to attempted race-fixing via the sponging of horses. However, once again McCandless was nowhere to be found and despite being featured on America’s Most Wanted four months after he was indicted, McCandless has seemingly remained at large.

Three months after Fanfreluche was returned to Claiborne, she gave birth to a healthy colt foal which Lévesque appropriately chose to name Sain Et Sauf, which is French for safe and sound. Later that year, Fanfreluche was sent back to Claiborne to visit Secretariat and was subsequently sold to Bertram Firestone for what was then a record $1.3m for whom she would go on to have a long and successful career as a broodmare.

That Fanfreluche was safely found proved to be of great benefit not just to Lévesque, but also to the thoroughbred breed. As a broodmare, she produced 18 foals and her influence has stretched around the racing world in the decades that have followed.

Indeed, her impact on the breed seems sure to continue for generations to come, given she is the grand dam of the smart Irish-based sire Holy Roman Emperor and the third/fourth dam of the top Australian sires Flying Spur and Encosta De Lago, to name just three of her most influential descendants.

She has even made an impact on the world of National Hunt racing, with her being the grand-dam of Montelimar who sired the Aintree Grand National winners Hedgehunter and Monty’s Pass amongst many other well-known performers over jumps.

Retired from breeding at the age of 24 in 1991, Fanfreluche lived out her days at Firestone’s Big Sink Farm in Kentucky in the company of the six-time Grade 1 winner Optimistic Gal. The two became inseparable in their final years and when Optimistic Gal passed away at the age of 26 in July 1999, Fanfreluche followed her just days later at the age of 32. The two mares are buried alongside each other in Big Sink Farm.

While Fanfreluche may not be as widely remembered as Shergar, her journey through life had an endlessly happier ending than his and thanks to the ongoing exploits of her descendants, she has a lasting legacy to match her remarkable story.


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