A Look Back At The FBI’s Most Wanted Race-Fixer, And The Trainer Who Tried To Catch Him

by | 07.08.2019 | 12:57pm
George "Barney" Isaacs (Photo: Adriana Duarte)

One night in 1998, longtime trainer George “Barney” Isaacs says he wore a wire and invited an armed felon into his apartment to help the FBI solve a horse racing mystery – and to get his hands on a $50,000 reward. Now, he wants his money. 

In 1996, Isaacs' near-four decade training career was all but over. He started out as a rider in pony races at the age of 12, traveling with the county fairs in Southern Illinois to boot home fuzzy Shetlands on dusty racetracks. At 15, he lied about his age and got a jockey's license, plying his trade on the same circuit. At 21, Isaacs graduated to training, taking out his license at now-defunct Cahokia Downs. He remembers the first horse he saddled – Noble Swiss, who also gave him his first win and paid $148.

Isaacs' training career had been a successful one; Equibase shows he had 453 wins from 3,882 starters, but the database doesn't include statistics prior to 1976, 20 years into his career. His best-known horse was Revive, briefly a Kentucky Derby dreamer in 1989. Isaacs spotted him in the claiming ranks at Churchill Downs, picking him up for $17,500 for owner Robert Dommel. 

“I had to talk to the guy for three days to let him claim him,” Isaacs chuckled. “His wife said, 'You just claim him, Barney. If you think that much of him, you keep him down there and race him yourself.' Most of [Dommel's] horses went up to Pennsylvania. So I did.”

By the end of the year, the former claimer had placed third in the Grade 1 Young America and would go on to hit the board in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club and G3 Cradle. 

“That was probably the greatest thing I've ever done,” Isaacs says now. 

Then, in 1992, he was caught growing marijuana in Wisconsin and sentenced to eight years in prison but was paroled after 2 ¼ years. 

“I'm not no angel by no means, but I'm not a bad guy,” he said.

(Why Wisconsin, so far from his training base? He pauses, then chuckles. “Well. It's where I got caught,” he said.)

With his conviction, he had lost his ability to be licensed on the track and acquired parole restrictions keeping him in the state of Illinois. As he was figuring out what to do next, he was approached by longtime friend William McCandless with a get-rich-quick idea. 

McCandless had grown up, like Isaacs, in backstretch stalls, clinging to the necks of tough old horses at county fair races. He had racing in his blood – grandfather A.C. “Cleve” Thompson had been a trainer and his uncle Billie Thompson was the jockey known as “the Calumet Comet,” who won a staggering half-million dollars in the mid-1940s. McCandless (born William Michael Rhodes in Paducah, Ky., but known by McCandless after his mother's divorce and remarriage) was about ten years Isaacs' junior. Both spent their teens riding at bullring tracks, learning every rough riding trick in the book, and it seems McCandless fell in with the wrong crowd by the time he was 18. His parents pulled him out of high school during his senior year and sent him to live with his grandparents, citing concerns about the company he kept. 

Two years in the Marine Corps, including one in Vietnam, earned McCandless a Presidential Unit Citation and National Defense Service Medal but family said the time also changed him. After the war, his mother said he was never the same, sleeping for long stretches and taking little interest in work on the farm. He worked inconsistently as a groom, traveling from track to track but otherwise had no profession for much of the 1970s through the 1990s.

“He really is a sick person, from the war,” his aunt Virginia Price would later tell reporters. 

As far as Isaacs knew, McCandless had grown into a likable person and a good friend, but a schemer and someone who always seemed to owe money to someone — an impression later echoed in press reports by friends and skeptics alike. 

“I knew him like a brother,” Isaacs said. “He used to carry my saddle around for me. His family come around the fairs racing horses and he'd follow me around like a little kid. Back then you had to saddle your own horses, you didn't have valets or anything. 

“He was a gambler. He couldn't go by a racetrack without betting. He smoked one cigarette right after another, lit them right off each other. He was a real nervous, cagey guy and he couldn't pass a race up. He'd bet his last quarter. He was hooked on gambling, but he only gambled on horses.

McCandless had a colorful criminal history; he was convicted of stealing farm equipment and later possession of 40 pounds of marijuana. Isaacs said he made the most of his time in prison – planning his next scheme. 

He was always scheming to do something. He'd come up with all his ideas when he was in prison,” Isaacs said.

This might make it appear that prison perhaps didn't have the desired effect on McCandless.

“Well,” mused Isaacs. “He never got away with anything.”

Now, McCandless had another scheme, and he wanted Issacs' help. He wanted to fix races by shoving sponges up the noses of potential favorites. He told Issacs he had connections in Mexico who could make big bets on longshots without being detected. The sponges would impede the horses' nasal passages enough to keep them from getting maximum airflow, though ideally not enough to prevent their breathing altogether. McCandless said he had a system – he'd pick out a race which was carded with the same conditions repeatedly, and have scouts follow the second, third and fourth-place finishers back to the barns to record their stall numbers. When the race came up again, he'd sponge the top betting choices, leaving himself with a pick of long odds and open noses.

Isaacs wanted no part of it. You're crazy, he told his friend. I'm not doing this, and you shouldn't either.

Throwing races at such great risk to horses seemed to Isaacs like a stretch for McCandless, but maybe it shouldn't have. In June 1977, the broodmare Fanfreluche, a Canadian Horse of the Year in foal to Secretariat, disappeared from a field at Claiborne Farm. Staff saw her in the afternoon of June 26 and when they couldn't lay eyes on her that evening, they assumed she was in a different part of the field from her herdmates. In the morning, they realized the truth. A corner of fencing at the back of the field was neatly cut and rolled away, and hoof prints were visible along the farm's iconic stone walls, disappearing at a spot by the road, as if she were loaded onto a trailer. It seemed she had been lured away with alfalfa hay. 

Police told Claiborne and Fanfreluche's owner, Jean-Louis Levesque, to expect a ransom call, but none ever came. Weeks went by. Desperate for leads, authorities released photos of the mare along with a $25,000 reward for her return, even claiming she needed medication to survive. Finally, in December, a tip sent police 150 miles away to Tompkinsville, Ky., to a property belonging to Larry McPherson. McPherson said he discovered the mare wandering the road near his farm. He had no idea who she was or where she came from and assumed she escaped someone's pasture. He brought the mare in, expecting someone would claim her one day. As time went by and no one recognized her, he named the mare “Brandy” and cared for her, even riding her from time to time. Fanfreluche was none the worse for wear and returned to Claiborne in time to foal a healthy colt in February. The McPhersons were cooperative if a little surprised when police turned up at their door months after they first found the mare. The family was cleared of any suspicion in the case. 

A warrant was issued for McCandless after fellow horsemen said he bragged about having the horse. He turned himself in but denied he committed the crime and declined to identify anyone else involved with the theft. 

Isaacs said McCandless admitted his role in the incident to him, although he's still not sure what possessed McCandless to try getting away with such a fantastical theft. Ever since the strange case, Isaacs knows people have been puzzled by the motive, too – the lack of ransom call, and the mare's sudden abandonment. 

“They were going to sell the colt to somebody, I think in New Mexico or something and what happened was, the guy backed out of the deal because the deal got too hot,” said Isaacs. “He ended up taking (Fanfreluche) down one of those country roads and dumped her out on a farm, is what he told me.”

McCandless jumped bail before his trial in the Fanfreluche case and managed to disappear for three years, resurfacing only upon his arrest for running a ring of thieves specializing in stealing farming equipment. Isaacs said McCandless was only caught because his mother called authorities and negotiated a shorter sentence if he would turn himself in.

After Isaacs told McCandless he wasn't getting involved in shoving sponges in horses' noses, Isaacs mostly forgot about the idea and assumed McCandless had, too. Then he got a call from a fellow trainer and friend about the strange case of a horse named Class O Lad who ran in a claiming race at Churchill Downs on June 14, 1997. The horse had pulled up in distress and new trainer Bill Million later discovered he had sponges shoved in his nose. (The stewards decided not to void the claim.) Class O Lad came up with laminitis two days later, which Million suspected may have been brought on by the stress of the episode. The horse later died. 

“I said, god, he went ahead with that crazy ass scheme,” Isaacs said.

Isaacs didn't know it, but Class O Lad wasn't the first horse who had been sponged. In fact, there had been a pattern of trainers finding sponges in poor performers' noses, and officials didn't know what to do about it. The first report of sponging hit the papers in 1996, and by the time Churchill Downs opened its fall 1997 meeting, anxiety about the race fixing had reached a boil. Twelve horses were known to have been sponged by then, and not only were there no suspects, stewards and law enforcement weren't even sure what type of person they should be looking for – trainers, veterinarians, grooms? They didn't know whether horsemen were throwing races by taking out their own horses or interfering with the competition. Isaacs said the Churchill backstretch was crawling with plain clothes police officers and racing officials, hoping to see something. Eventually, Churchill required all horses be scoped prior to entering the paddock to ensure they hadn't been tampered with, frantic to restore the confidence of the betting public. The FBI was called in to investigate, and several newspapers reported a reward of $50,000 was offered for information leading to arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible.  

Isaacs said he didn't know about any of this at the time, but he knew a horse was dead and he was pretty sure he knew who was responsible. Still stuck in Illinois on parole, he asked some of his old racing buddies in Kentucky to put him in touch with racing officials. The FBI and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) organized an exemption with his parole officer and asked Isaacs to come to Louisville for an interview. They wanted his help to gather evidence against McCandless and set a tap on his phone. They also told him about the reward; Isaacs remembers being told it was a joint offer between the commission and the Kentucky HBPA, though media reports never suggest the commission offered public funds for such a thing.

Isaacs' meeting with FBI agents in Louisville wasn't his first brush with the agency. In the early 1980s, Isaacs began training horses for a Chicago businessman named “Big Jim” Robonts, a towering character flashing Rolexes and Western wear who purported to be a racetrack neophyte interested in investing in Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds. Robonts turned out to be James R. Carter, an undercover agent for the FBI who was the centerpiece of “Operation Stewball” – a three-year program to ferret out race fixing, primarily in harness racing. Robonts, who one agent described as “an underworld folk hero” breaking up bar fights and vowing revenge on rivals, needed a cover to be at the racetrack without standing out. With time, Agent Carter was able to wade into a ring of harness race fixers, ultimately gathering enough evidence for charges against 14 men for holding horses in Kentucky, Ohio, and Canada in order to profit at the betting windows.

Isaacs said he had no idea “Big Jim” wasn't really a big-talking salesman until the FBI impounded Lend Em Last, Big Jim's horse in his shed row. He was later subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury, where his lawyer urged him to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights when asked about life at the racetrack.

“They thought I was fixing races and paying jockeys off. It never amounted to anything,” Issacs says now. “They put me in front of a grand jury and that was the last I ever heard about it. They put about eight or nine jockeys in front of the grand jury and nobody said a bad word about me.”  

Now, after being in their crosshairs (albeit briefly), Isaacs was the FBI's greatest asset in the sponging investigation. 

At the FBI's urging, Isaacs got in touch with McCandless to say he'd changed his mind – he needed money, he claimed, and wanted in on the scheme. McCandless told him his timing was perfect. Kentucky had gotten too hot for him, and he had just been in Illinois, working to set up a race in Chicago. He could stop by Isaacs' apartment on his way back to his mother's house in Tennessee. Isaacs agreed, and before he knew it, he was wired for sound with an FBI van sitting outside his window while a felon sat in his apartment, armed with the .22 he carried everywhere he went.

“I couldn't wait for him to leave. I kept trying to get him out of my apartment. I was asking questions and I thought, 'Boy he's going to catch on to me here in a minute,'” Isaacs remembered. “They're sitting out there in the van and I got him on tape talking about it. I got the whole goods. We're talking about the Chicago deal and I'm acting like I want to help. I'm thinking they're going to bust in here any time and grab him because he's telling me all about it. They don't do that.”

Thirty minutes after McCandless got back in his car, Isaacs' FBI handler told him the agency was planning to execute a search warrant at McCandless' Tennessee home the next morning. When they did, agents found sponges, twitches, and other equipment that illustrated the unsavory tale McCandless had told Isaacs. 

Still, agents didn't arrest McCandless. They indicted him on charges of racketeering and fraud related to the incidents on May 4, 1998 and he promptly disappeared into thin air — just as he'd done after the Fanfreluche theft.

Isaacs panicked. There was no way McCandless didn't know who set him up, and soon the guy with the .22 who knew Isaacs' routine and the layout of his apartment was on the FBI's Most Wanted list. Isaacs fled to Florida, where he remained in hiding for almost two years, looking over his shoulder every time he heard a footstep. McCandless was featured twice on the popular television show America's Most Wanted, but the segment generated no leads. He hasn't been seen or heard from in the 21 years since his arraignment.   

Nearly everyone who still remembers the case is convinced McCandless is most likely dead and probably died soon after he vanished in 1998. It isn't clear whether his connections in Mexico were employees or part of an organized criminal enterprise, but the popular theory is they were more apt to dispose of him than to put him in some sort of race fixer's version of witness protection.

An article appearing in the Louisville Courier-Journal on Oct. 7, 1998

After the second television segment aired with no word from McCandless, Isaacs figured it was safe to resurface. His participation in the FBI sting was enough for Kentucky and Ohio officials to reinstate his license, and he worked as an assistant trainer for several years until physical infirmities forced his retirement. All the while, he waited for his money.

Isaacs said he has written to the Kentucky Racing Commission, the KHBPA, and many of the trainers and jockeys at Churchill who used to be old friends. He tried to circulate a petition he could bring to the groups involved but was marched off the grounds at Keeneland by security officers after he showed up with the petition in hand and an expired license. Isaacs has called every friend he had in the business and now he says, it seems they've forgotten him.

“I don't feel like the horsemen have backed me at all on this. Of course most people now, they don't know George Barney Isaacs from Adam, but there's still a few trainers up there that I still know and was good friends with. They've turned their backs on me and I don't know why,” he said.

To add to the confusion, there seems to be some uncertainty about who would be responsible for paying the reward. A story in The Baltimore Sun from 1996 states the KHBPA, Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, Keeneland Association and Jockeys' Guild all offered rewards of “about $5,000.” A later piece in the Louisville Courier-Journal credited “Churchill Downs and other racing groups” with offering the money.

Isaacs retained an attorney to help him collect, but because the original offer was for information resulting in an arrest and conviction, he was told the case was hopeless. The racing commission's leader responded this way:

“It was hard, trying to go back in time because everybody had retired. Our security guy found them all retired, went back through some files and whatnot, and basically whatever the reward money was, it was predicated on arrest and conviction. And the guy's gone,” said KHRC executive director Marc Guilfoil. 

Chauncey Morris, executive director for the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, wasn't at the organization in 1998, but was briefed on the case. 

“We as an entity, want to stand by our promises,” Morris said. “But of course, it didn't result in an arrest or conviction.” 

Law enforcement strongly discourages groups or individuals from offering rewards for information alone, as a wide fishing net often brings in useless tips, and also urges groups not to grant exceptions to reward terms like this. 

“I don't know why they think I didn't earn that money,” said Isaacs, now 81. “The favor I done for the racing commission, I stuck my neck for them and hid out for two years and that's the way they treated me. If you think about it, I did the best thing anybody could do for the racing industry because I put a stop to something that was going on for two or three years before that. If I hadn't told them, they wouldn't know to this day [who did it].”

Isaacs still hangs onto a business card for Paul Booker, director of enforcement for the KHRC, who was one of several officials he spoke to at the commission before Guilfoil's investigation into the case. 

“Thank you for helping the integrity of racing,” Booker scrawled on the back of the card in blue pen. 

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