True Crime in Horse Racing: The Curious Case of the Missing Mare

April 22nd, 2022

On a chilly night in February 1983, masked men pulled into Ballymany Stud in County Kildare, Ireland, with one goal in mind: kidnap the Aga Khan’s champion stallion, Shergar. The men, allegedly connected to the Irish Republican Army, drove away with the Epsom Derby winner in a horse trailer, with a ransom demand following the stallion’s disappearance. Shergar was never seen again.

Shergar's kidnapping, which remains unsolved, is certainly shocking but not unprecedented: a similar crime happened nearly six years earlier, when Canadian champion Fanfreluche was stolen from her paddock at Claiborne Farm. Her disappearance touched off a six-month search for the mare and her unborn foal by Secretariat, a story that is noteworthy for the names at its center and for its remarkable resolution.

Doubly Excellent

Bred and owned by Canadian financier Jean-Louis Levesque, Fanfreluche was part of her sire Northern Dancer’s second crop, her wins in the Alabama Stakes, the Manitoba Derby, and the Quebec Derby helping to propel him to first-class stallion status. Her stellar three-year-old season was enough to earn her both Canadian Horse of the Year and the American Champion Three-Year-Old Filly in 1970.

After a tendon injury ended her career, Levesque bred his champion filly first to Buckpasser, producing the two-time Canadian Horse of the Year L’Enjoleur. By 1977, Fanfreluche had foals by Epsom Derby winner Sir Ivor, French champion Le Fabuleux, and Triple Crown winner Secretariat. Her owner bred her back to the Triple Crown winner that year, keeping her at Claiborne Farm after she was confirmed in foal.

Fanfreluche was turned out in a field with other mares, and save for her markings, would not have been identifiable to the average person unless they were close to her and saw the nameplate on her halter. At 4 p.m. on June 25, 1977, a farmhand checked the paddock before finishing his shift, checking that the mares were all where they should be. Two and a half hours later, the night watchman radioed farm manager John Sosby that the group was short one. Thinking that she might have jumped the fence into another paddock, they were unconcerned until the next day when a search for the missing mare led to a startling discovery of a crudely patched box wire fence and a pile of alfalfa hay.

Fanfreluche had not escaped her paddock. No, this champion mare in foal to a Triple Crown winner had been kidnapped.

The Search Is On

Once Seth Hancock and his staff realized that Fanfreluche had been taken, they called the police, who put out a bulletin that went from coast to coast, alerting other jurisdictions to be on the lookout for the mare. Meanwhile, the police discussed who might be behind this kidnapping. Was it someone who held a grudge against Hancock and Claiborne? Was the perpetrator trying to extort money from Levesque? Authorities waited for a ransom note while continuing to investigate just how the mare was taken from her paddock.

The culprit clearly had knowledge of the farm’s layout, parking a truck with a horse trailer in a spot that was not visible from any of the homes near that paddock. Additionally, the alfalfa discovered near the patched fence meant that the person or persons who had taken her knew that the hay would incentivize the mare to come to them. Lastly, the box wire fence had been cut and then patched, implying that the perpetrator knew what fencing Claiborne used and had the right tools to cut and then patch it. As police pieced together the sequence of events, they lacked one thing: motive.

No ransom demands came in nor did anyone call claiming credit for the kidnapping. Claiborne offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to those responsible for Fanfreluche’s disappearance. Tips poured in, but nothing concrete emerged. Shipments of horses were closely monitored just in case the kidnappers tried to move her out of state or even out of the country. Yet investigators found no trace of the valuable mare.

In early December, nearly six months after her disappearance, the authorities received a new tip: a horse matching Fanfreluche’s description had been spotted on a farm near Tompkinsville, Kentucky. There, on December 8, the FBI and state police found the champion mare, shaggy with a winter coat but otherwise unharmed, in a field on Larry McPherson’s farm.

Months earlier, in a rural area 150 miles southwest of Claiborne, McPherson had spotted the mare standing in the road near his home. He took her in and named her Brandy, never imagining that the mare was the one that he had heard about in news reports, the one he assumed had already been taken out of the state or the country. He kept her in a barn with his own horses while he waited for someone to claim her. Finally, someone did.

Hancock came out to Tompkinsville, loaded Fanfreluche in a horse trailer, and took her back to Claiborne. Upon examination, the mare and her foal were in good condition, but with only a few weeks to go before she foaled, Levesque kept her in Kentucky rather than bringing her to Canada. On February 16, Fanfreluche gave birth to a colt named Sain et Sauf, French for safe and sound.

Fanfreluche would go on to have twelve more foals, including D’Accord, a graded stakes winner who later became a sire in New York and L’On Vite, the dam of multiple Group 1 winner Holy Roman Emperor. Sain et Sauf would go on to an unremarkable career, his time on the racetrack even more remarkable because of his dam’s kidnapping and recovery.

With mare and foal safe, the focus turned to prosecuting those responsible for the abduction: an itinerant horseman named William McCandless.

Resolution and Revision

With a family background in racing, McCandless had worked as an exercise rider and a groom at smaller racetracks like Cahokia Downs in Illinois and Ellis Park in Kentucky. He was also addicted to gambling, wagering each dollar he earned as he wandered from job to job. He had decided to steal Fanfreluche with the intent of selling either the mare or her foal but had dumped her near Tompkinsville after the publicity and search intensified. That is where McPherson found her, wandering on that country road.

Eyewitness accounts and evidence from the scene placed McCandless in the Claiborne area on the day Fanfreluche disappeared. He was arrested in July 1977, months before she had been recovered, and charged with her theft and suspected death. He jumped bond and eluded authorities for four years before being imprisoned for a separate crime in Tennessee. In 1983, McCandless stood trial in Kentucky for stealing Fanfreluche and her unborn foal. He was convicted, sentenced to five years in prison, and then served time in Kentucky after his sentence in Tennessee was up.

Forty-five years after Fanfreluche’s kidnapping and recovery, the story remains a stark contrast to the tragedy of Shergar’s disappearance a few years later. From both came new measures to shore up the security of breeding farms on both sides of the Atlantic as well as the addition of insurance against theft for both stallions and broodmares, necessary changes given the ever-increasing value of these athletes. This instance of sport and criminality is not new to racing but continues to be extraordinary for its audacity and for its happy ending.