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  • Author Phillips Carter
  • Published December 23, 2019
  • Word count 710

The Hollywood Park stables were quiet that night. Gail Ruffu had planned it that way.

It was around midnight on Christmas Eve, 2004, days before the winter racing season would start at Santa Anita Park, about 30 miles away in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia.

It would be easy for Ruffu, a horse trainer, to slip into the Hollywood Park stables without anyone noticing.

It would be easy to find the horse she once trained, Urgent Envoy. He was in a barn just across the road from her own. She could lead him into a trailer, talk her way past a guard and drive away. And that's exactly what she did.

"I figured, whatever it takes, even if I go to jail, I have to save this horse's life," Ruffu said.

Gail Ruffu photographed at a horse boarding barn near her home in Los Angeles in 2007.

Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Ruffu had trained a handful of horses before, but Urgent Envoy was special. Over the previous year, she helped transform him from a dangerous rebel into a gentle athlete. It seemed he was her one shot to train a winner.

If Ruffu's recollections were true, it would mean my dad had been part of a grave problem with horse racing.

Since last December, 37 horses have died at Santa Anita during racing or training. The latest death came earlier this month at one of horse racing's most prestigious events, the Breeders' Cup, held this year at Santa Anita. Before a prime-time television audience, Mongolian Groom suffered a devastating leg fracture during the event's marquee race, the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic. He was loaded onto an equine ambulance, driven away and euthanized.

The spate of deaths at Santa Anita, while not out of the ordinary relative to past years at the track, has drawn renewed attention to a broader racing culture that has been decried by critics for putting profits ahead of equine health. Painkillers and performance enhancers are regularly administered to horses, critics charge, which can mask injuries and clear the way for horses that are already at risk to compete. In the case of Santa Anita, a strenuous racing schedule and the effect of unusually wet weather on the track itself may also have played a role.

Last year, the sport saw 493 deaths in the United States and Canada, according to the Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database. But that number does not include deaths from injuries sustained during training.

The problem is one that Ruffu has agonized over for most of her career. She says horses are raced too young, too often, too medicated and all for the prestige and payout that comes with victory.

"A million-dollar purse for one race? People are willing to throw away several dead horses trying to get that," Ruffu told me.

"Horse whisperer"

Ruffu and my dad weren't always enemies. They met in 1999 when Ruffu needed a lawyer. My father took her case.

Ruffu had filed suit against several California horse racing entities. She had been banned from the Santa Anita, Del Mar and Hollywood Park tracks for nine months, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune reported. Her unorthodox training methods and habit of distributing flyers at the track got her in trouble. The fliers said two-year-olds were too young to race in the Breeders' Cup. A judge sided with Ruffu and she was reinstated.

At the time, my dad called Ruffu a "horse whisperer."

"The people who are in control of the horse racing establishment don't know how to do things Gail's way," he told the Tribune. They parted ways amicably, and he mentioned maybe owning a horse with her someday.

In 2003, an opportunity came up when Ruffu found a horse that had already injured two stablehands.

"I heard of a horse that nobody wanted because he was a bit of an outlaw," she laughed. "Of course, that'd be the one for me. That's my specialty."

She called my father, Steve Haney. He brought in three other investors and together they bought the horse for $5,000. That July, they made a deal with Ruffu. They would bankroll the horse, and in return for her labor Ruffu would get a 20% stake. They renamed the horse Urgent Envoy, after his sire, Urgent Request.

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