All's well that ends well.
The last time I wrote about 9-year-old Star Plus, the Argentine Group 1 winner who was being raced despite what his previous owner said were serious physical problems, he was in the private possesion of owner-breeder George Iacovacci Sr. and a distant trailer in every one of his four starts.
“Doesn't this horse deserve better?” I asked.
Today I have much better news to report. Star Plus has been purchased back by Earle I. Mack, who imported the son of Alpha Plus from his native Argentine and raced him in allowance and stakes company from 2008-10, when his career was cut short by a serious injury. He will be moved to Old Friends in Georgetown, Ky., where he can live out his days in tranquility, something that can't be said about the last year. Mack is making generous donation to the horse retirement operation to ensure he is well cared for.
Star Plus was a horse that many felt was in danger since he resurfaced racing for his new connections.
It all began when Darcy Scudero, who handles some of Mack's bloodstock, was authorized to sell Star Plus for stallion duty following a period of rehabilitation after a March 2010 race. One of those who responded to an advertisement for Star Plus was Kelly Spanabel, a jockey that Scudero once rode with. They reached an agreement for the horse to be sold to Spanabel's partner, Iacovacci, for $1,000, and Scudero wrote a note on the bill of sale that “this horse is being retired from racing PERMANENTLY” and “when done with horse to be placed in approved and proper retirement home.”
Whether or not Spanabel agreed to those terms may be in question. It wasn't long before Star Plus was put back in training, to the horror of Scudero, Mack, the horse's former trainer Angel Penna Jr., and veterinarian Gene Hill, who treated Star Plus following what his connections believed to be a career-ending injury.
Star Plus ran in Michigan, then West Virginia, then Pennsylvania. Mack wrote letters to the head of racing commissions in the latter two states pointing out the horse's medical problems and urging them to stop Star Plus from being raced again. At first, his request fell on deaf ears.
Fortunately, some people stepped up. Officials at Parx Racing, where Star Plus lost by more than 43 lengths on Jan. 28, said the horse couldn't race there again. Other tracks put him on a vet's list, meaning Star Plus would have to work out to the track veterinarian's satisfaction before he could race again.
But the biggest breakthrough came on March 8 when Kelli D. Talbott, the senior deputy attorney general for the state of West Virginia, demanded Iacovacci appear before the Mountaineer Park board of stewards on March 23 to answer questions about the ownership and condition of Star Plus. Iacovacci had told the stewards an earlier letter from the racing commission said it had no jurisdiction over the matter, but Talbott felt differently.
“If you choose not to come to the hearing and present evidence, you do so at your own peril and possible detriment,” Talbott wrote to Iacovacci. “If you are not there at your own choosing, the hearing will be held in your absence and a decision as to whether or not Star Plus should go on the Stewards' List shall be made in your absence.”
Several people had been working pro bono on Mack's behalf, both with the racing commissions and in attempting to repurchase Star Plus and ensure his safe being, including a trio of attorneys, Karen Murphy, Maggi Mossi and Fred Heyman. Then there were the 1,000-plus people who, within three days of an article about Star Plus's plight in the Paulick Report, had signed a petition demanding the horse be spared from further racing.
As the date of the hearing approached, Spanabel began putting notices on her personal Facebook page that Star Plus was being sold to overseas interests and that his racing career would continue. All that awaited, she wrote, was the transfer of funds. She indicated in a private message to me that Star Plus would soon be on his way to Belize.
But that all turned out to be a smokescreen, at best. The stewards conducted what was a very contentious hearing in which assistant attorney general Talbott demanded to know the whereabouts of Star Plus. Penna and Hill, the horse's former trainer and veterinarian, both testified by telephone on the severe injury suffered by Star Plus, necessitating his retirement, and Mack's attorneys raised enough questions about the horse's sale and the conditions that stewards ruled he would be ineligible to race or work out until those questions were clarified. Their ruling would be enforced in all states.
That was one week ago today.
The same afternoon, Spanabel wrote on her Facebook page: “Good luck Star. He left this afternoon on his long journey out of the country. I hope they take care of you. Forced to send you where you can race and won't be harassed.”
That turned out to be a lie.
By noon the next day, a Saturday, Mack's representatives had worked out the final details to purchase Star Plus back for $7,000 and bring him to Kentucky. Chris Englehart, who trains for Moss, along with his stable manager and brother, Steve, executed the transaction and arranged for a van to pick up Star Plus later that afternoon in West Virginia. He had never left for Texas.
By 5:30 Star Plus was in their possession, his future no longer in doubt.
When the deal was done, Murphy thanked Talbott, the West Virginia assistant attorney general who took a personal interest in a case she could just as easily as passed off as none of the state's business. She called it “wonderful news” to learn that the horse had been reunited with his former owner.
Talbott's response to Murphy was simple and to the point. “Godspeed to Star Plus.”
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