Malibu Star mix-up delivers misery for Dundalk breeder


April 25, 2004|By TOM KEYSER

After training horses for nearly three decades, John Walters, 50, of Dundalk decided a few years ago to breed them. He thought he might have hit the jackpot on the first try, producing a promising son of Malibu Moon and broodmare Wishing Star.

"I've been around horses long enough to know this wasn't just an average horse," Walters said of the gelding he named Malibu Star.

Last June, when Malibu Star was 2, Walters brought him to the racetrack - as his only horse at Pimlico. He developed a small chip in his left knee. Walters consulted veterinarians, including Alex Harthill in Kentucky, and eventually decided to send the horse to Harthill for surgery.

Walters hired Sallee Horse Vans to transport Malibu Star. On Aug. 20 last year at Bowie, a Sallee van picked up the unraced, 2-year-old Malibu Star as well as a 3-year-old, seven-time starter named Sir Gawain who had no connection to Walters. Sallee was supposed to deliver Malibu Star to Harthill in Kentucky and Sir Gawain to a trainer at River Downs in Ohio.

As it turned out, Sallee delivered Sir Gawain to Harthill and Malibu Star to River Downs. Gary Priest, an associate of Harthill's, operated on Sir Gawain, who has since returned to racing, and trainer Al Palacios at River Downs got Malibu Star.

Palacios could not be reached to comment, but his foreman, Ivan Vazquez, said the horse arrived wearing no shoes. They put shoes on. They tried to put a saddle on, but the horse was "a little green," Vazquez said. They checked his lip tattoo. He didn't have one.

"He was supposed to be a big chestnut," Vazquez said. "This was a small bay horse."

Vazquez said they did not send Malibu Star to the track. Sallee was notified and sent a van back to get the horse. Vazquez said that they had him about three days, and that when he boarded the van "he was the same as when we got him."

However, when Malibu Star finally arrived at Harthill's clinic on Aug. 26, he had "lots of new fractures in both knees" that were too severe for surgery, Walters said. How he suffered those injuries are one of several unanswered questions, but Walters said they were typical of training injuries; there were no cuts or abrasions. Malibu Star grew increasingly infirm, and on Jan. 21 this year, Walters hired a vet to euthanize the horse.

He also hired a lawyer. He sued Sallee, Harthill and Priest in Jefferson Circuit Court in Kentucky. Walters wants $45,000, the appraised value of Malibu Star, and $30,000 for expenses.

Walters said he loaded Malibu Star onto the Sallee van with X-rays, a health certificate and identification papers. Also, he said, the horse wore a halter with a brass nameplate that read: MALIBU STAR.

Bob Vallance, one of the Maryland vets who X-rayed Malibu Star, said this was a case where everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

Michael P. Casey, attorney for Harthill and Priest, declined to comment. Rob Kinsey, attorney for Sallee, declined to comment about this case but said Sallee's liability would be limited to the value of the horse as stated on a document called the "bill of lading." In small print on the document, which Walters signed in the dark at Bowie, it limits the value to $2,000.

Walters said he never noticed that. He said one reason he filed suit was to make sure people knew about the limited liability of van companies when transporting horses.

"I didn't hire these people to lose my horse. I hired them to transport my horse," Walters said. "He could have turned out to be a $500 horse, or he could have been a stakes horse. It's just the fact that he never got a chance because of somebody else's mistakes."

Fair hearing?

Terry Saxon, a member of the Maryland Racing Commission, kept insisting that commissioners who own thoroughbreds should recuse themselves from last week's hearing over cross-breed simulcasting involving the potential owners of Rosecroft Raceway. He said that standardbred interests couldn't get a fair hearing before this commission.

Of the nine commissioners, four own thoroughbred racehorses (Al Akman, Ernest Colvin, John McDaniel and Lou Ulman), and the father of another (John Franzone) owns thoroughbreds. The commission in general - not to mention the state as a whole - lacks knowledge about harness racing.

Bill Gerweck, general manager of the massive Winbak Farm in Chesapeake City, asked the commissioners whether anyone had heard of No Pan Intended. No one had.

No Pan Intended was recently named the 2003 Standardbred Horse of the Year. He earned $1,581,735. In 2003, he won 17 of 20 races and finished second in the other three. No Pan Intended became the 10th horse to sweep pacing's Triple Crown.

Winbak Farm bred No Pan Intended.

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