Court Battle Sullies Feel-Good Story of Rescue Racehorse, Magna Fortuna

by | 08.28.2014 | 1:40am
Magna Fortuna (a.k.a. Taxi), the focus of two Good News Friday stories, has become the center of an ugly legal dispute

What began as the well-publicized story of a miracle foal that made it to the winner's circle in support of responsible ownership has turned swiftly into a cautionary tale featuring court hearings, allegations of trespassing, and bitter infighting between some of the horse's connections.

At the center of the dispute is a 4-year-old gelding named Magna Fortuna. His unlikely path to the racetrack was first chronicled in a Paulick Report Good News Friday piece in December, 2012 and later on the front page of the Chicago Tribune.

His story was so remarkable because Magna Fortuna came within hours of vanishing before anyone even knew he existed. In 2009, Gail Vacca, president of the Illinois Equine Humane Center (ILEHC), spotted a crippled Thoroughbred mare in the “kill pen” at a livestock auction known for shipping horses to slaughter. She convinced the dealer to sell her the horse for $300, and in the coming weeks, Vacca discovered that her rescued, recovering mare was pregnant.

She gave birth on April 15, 2010, and since it was Tax Day, the staff of the ILEHC named the colt “Taxi.” Vacca launched a background search on the impressive-looking Thoroughbred foal and found out that he was a son of the sire, Magna Graduate, and that his mother was a well-bred mare named Silver Option. Vacca and some ILEHC volunteers decided it might be important to register Taxi with the Jockey Club and race him to help raise awareness.

“We got to thinking it'd be really cool if he could do what he was bred to do,” Vacca said in late 2012. “I thought maybe he could make it to the track and become a 'spokeshorse' for the way some of these broodmares are treated. It just defies description that people can throw them away like garbage the minute they can't make money off of them.”

Vacca and ILEHC volunteer Laura Donohoe assembled a group of 15 partners, forming an LLC they called Rescue Me Racing. Taxi was registered as Magna Fortuna, a Latin phrase meaning “'great luck”' or “'great fortune”.

Magna Fortuna had little luck in his first two starts at Hawthorne, but trainer Michele Boyce was confident the 3-year-old would improve at longer distances. She proved correct on March 13, 2013, as the gelding ran off to win by 9 3/4 lengths, thrilling the partnership and prompting more positive media coverage. Taxi won again in May at Arlington Park but came out of the race needing some time off. In a blog detailing the horse's lay-up for the remainder of 2013, Donohoe wrote at year's end: “I have a strong feeling that Taxi's story is far from being over!”

She was right.

Taking Taxi
The tensions that were about to boil over started prior to Taxi's first race back from the layoff, March 2, 2014 at Hawthorne. Vacca said she and other partners expressed concern about running the horse that day because the weather in Chicago was frigid, but he raced anyway.

After finishing fourth in that allowance event, Magna Fortuna seemed to have no health issues and ran again on March 29, taking third in another allowance at Hawthorne. But three weeks later, a five-furlong workout triggered a series of events that no one could have anticipated.

Magna Fortuna won by 9 3/4 lengths at Hawthorne on March 13, 2013

Magna Fortuna won by 9 3/4 lengths at Hawthorne on March 13, 2013

The gelding, who had raced on Lasix throughout his career, bled through the nose following the work. Taxi was subsequently diagnosed by two veterinarians with having Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH) and prescribed rest and antibiotics. In one report, a vet also mentioned the possibility of hyperbaric oxygen therapy but did not include that as part of the horse's treatment.

Trainer Michele Boyce and some of the other partners thought the hyperbaric treatment might be beneficial and planned to have the horse shipped to trainer Wayne Catalano's farm, which has a hyperbaric chamber.

“Even after we discussed the hyperbaric treatment and all of that, we were going to have him reevaluated by the vets again before any kind of training,” said Donohoe.

But Vacca, a former trainer who was designated Equine Welfare Manager for Taxi in the LLC's partnership agreement, had other ideas.

“I firmly believed that he needed to be retired from racing in order to give him the best opportunity for a second career,” said Vacca, who wanted to take the horse to Promise Equestrian Center in Maple Park, Ill., the farm where the ILEHC leases stalls and land.

But Vacca said the shipper hired by Boyce disregarded Vacca's orders and took Taxi to Catalano's farm in nearby Elgin instead. Catalano was away, running Aurelia's Belle in the Kentucky Oaks.

“I followed the driver to that farm,” said Vacca. “(Taxi) was in a tiny stall, the stall was filthy, dirty water bucket, nasty. I called a friend to come and pick him up, and we had him out of there in an hour and back to my farm.”

Donohoe said she and other partners had seen Catalano's farm and had no concerns about its condition. The group also disagreed with Vacca's decision as Equine Welfare Manager that Taxi's health was in danger.

Magna Fortuna in training

Magna Fortuna in training

“Gail is not a veterinarian,” said Donohoe. “We had two vets and the various trainers that we were working with, that we were depending on to make that decision.”

May 2 would not be the last time Taxi would be removed from a property against someone's wishes.


'By Then, He Was Gone'
While Magna Fortuna spent the next few weeks in familiar surroundings at Promise Equestrian Center — slowly recovering according to Vacca — Donohoe and other Rescue Me Racing partners were planning their next move. At some point, a vote was taken to oust Vacca as Equine Welfare Manager, and on June 20, the partners filed a lawsuit alleging that Magna Fortuna was “being wrongfully detained” by Vacca.

Vacca filed a motion to dismiss, and on Aug. 19, a judge ruled in her favor, although for technical reasons, the judge gave the plaintiffs a second chance to refile their complaint within a few weeks. The judge also remarked during the hearing: “There is nothing to indicate that Ms. Vacca or any one of the other members of the LLC does not have the right to have possession… of the horse.”

Donohoe and her group of partners seized on the judge's language. Within hours, they were at Promise Equestrian, with an attorney's letter saying they had the right as members of the LLC to take possession of the horse owned by Rescue Me Racing.

“No one was there,” said Donohoe. “So we left a note and the letter of demand, and went ahead and took Taxi.”

Vacca and her lawyer were livid.

“I got a call from Gail who was informed by the landlord of the property that someone is here stealing your horse,” said attorney Christine Righeimer. “We immediately called the police. We didn't know what was going on.  We rushed over there, and by then, (Taxi) was gone.”

Righeimer said because the farm is clearly marked as private property and she had legally warned Taxi's partners previously about going there without an appointment, the partners who took him were trespassing.

“The judge didn't say anyone of you can go take him now. She was speaking in generalities,” said Righeimer. “They chose what I call vigilante justice, to take it into their own hands.”

Asked whether she thought her group had legal standing to remove the gelding from Promise Equestrian, Donohoe replied, “absolutely.” She also noted that the LLC had been paying board to Vacca since Vacca took Magna Fortuna on May 2.

A Good Rescue Spoiled?
Taxi's latest stop is Michele Boyce's stable at Arlington Park, where he remains. Boyce said the horse is in light training and doing fine.

“He's very strong, very full of himself,” she said. “There was nothing ever wrong with this horse that you don't treat with a little rest and antibiotics.”

There are no plans yet to race Magna Fortuna again, but it's a possibility. Donohoe said the partners want to do what's best for the horse.

Magna Fortuna with mom, Silver Option

Magna Fortuna with mom, Silver Option

“We would love to see him be able to race again because that's what he loves to do, and I think that would be the biggest tragedy, not letting him do what he loves to do,” Donohoe said. “But if we have the professionals, such as the vet and the trainers telling us he shouldn't race, then no, we won't race him.”

Meanwhile, more court proceedings are coming, according to Vacca's attorney.

“There's a pending criminal investigation into their trespass,” Righeimer said. “There's also going to be ongoing civil litigation. That's not over.”

The civil case is likely to hinge on how a judge views the partnership agreement: Did the group of partners led by Donohoe violate it by voting out Vacca as the person charged with making the welfare decisions regarding Taxi? Or does the agreement give them that power?

Whatever happens in court, both parties agree this was not how the well-intended endeavor was supposed to end up.

“I'm incredibly disappointed in the people who have decided to take these actions,” said Vacca. “I'm regretful that I ever allowed Taxi to become a racehorse.”

“This continues to paint racing in a horrible light,” said Righeimer. “This was supposed to show that you can humanely race and care for a racehorse. And now we're in a position where there are just arguments over what's in the best interests of the horse.”

Before Magna Fortuna's first race in late 2012, Donohoe said the Rescue Me Racing partnership wasn't about making money but rather taking care of Taxi and giving him the opportunity to race, as long as he enjoyed it. She said despite recent events, that's still the case.

“All I can say at this point is that I dearly love Taxi, and he has become a part of my family, just as he has become a part of all of the partners' families. And I would never do anything to endanger him. I love that horse from the bottom of my heart, and I know the other partners feel that way, too.”

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