AIDS Horse-Auction Benefit Has a Rough Ride : $800,000 Raised in ‘Gift to Life’ Event in Scottsdale

Share via
Times Staff Writer

Horses and Hollywood. What would figure to be a more winning combination--the glamour of Elizabeth Taylor, the humor of Bob Hope, and 11 shiny Arabian horses prancing across a stage with a backdrop of blue mirrors that formed an outline of the Louvre museum?

Yup, buckaroos, it happened here in this desert city Monday night, an extravaganza the likes of which Scottsdale, and few other cities and towns across the country, ever has seen. Or probably ever will.

AIDS Benefit

The unusual event was a benefit for AIDS research and education called “A Gift to Life,” and not only did Hollywood roll out some of its finest, but 11 of the most prestigious owners and breeders of Arabian horses donated their valuable horses to be auctioned off for the sake of AIDS charities.


Hollywood’s film, television and recording stars have rallied before for the cause of AIDS--they raised $1.2 million at a Los Angeles dinner in 1985--but this was the first involvement of the Arabian horse world.

“We decided this would be a good idea, to raise money for AIDS research,” said Dr. Eugene LaCroix, a retired vascular surgeon who hosted the dinner show and auction at his Lasma Arabians ranch.

LaCroix, in the Arabian business since 1944 when he bought two of the horses to breed to his cattle horses, is famous for his show-business approach to horse auctions, using elaborate sets to show off his horses on stage, and hiring big-name entertainment for prospective customers at his yearly sales.

“After having read the medical facts about this entity called AIDS, and talking with several Ph.D.s and MDs, you recognize this is a catastrophic threat to all of us. The threat is indeed much greater than the average person can dream of.”

So, “A Gift to Life” was launched, and by Monday evening’s end, about $800,000 had been tallied in contributions for the American Foundation for AIDS Research and the Arizona AIDS Fund Trust, two groups that administer programs dealing with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

But the ambitious fund-raiser did not go smoothly.

The event’s problems began several weeks before it was to be held, and just as one difficulty seemingly was ironed out, another arose.


By last weekend, unexpected rain had dampened everyone’s spirits, and the cold temperatures that followed sent event planners scurrying to line up loads of heaters for the huge outdoor tent where the dinner show would be held.

The crystal-chandeliered Lasma Sales Center, where singer Melissa Manchester would perform, and the horses would be sold, was well heated. Even stalls for the show horses were warmed by overhead infrared lights.

On Collision Course

By Monday afternoon, though, it appeared that “A Gift to Life” was on a collision course with itself. Producers and some entertainers squabbled, rehearsals ran late, forcing the scheduled press conference at the hotel to delay stars’ appearances at the dinner.

About 1,000 guests, who had paid $250, $500 or $1,000 per seat for the dinner show and auction, milled about in the cocktail party area, awaiting the celebrities’ arrival.

Many expressed disappointment when word began to filter around that some of the celebrities who were supposed to attend wouldn’t be coming.

Kenny Rogers was in a Los Angeles hospital to have a cyst removed from his vocal cords, Wayne Newton and Mike Nichols reportedly were ill, Merv Griffin was filming the Mardi Gras carnival in Rio and Dr. Armand Hammer was ill with the flu. All are in the Arabian horse business.


Things only got worse that night when the show ran almost two hours late, and the auction, except for one horse, turned into a raffle where people bought tickets for $500 apiece.

Taylor has been involved in raising money for AIDS causes since early 1985, and currently serves as the national chairman for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AFAR), a national nonprofit fund-raising group with offices in New York and Los Angeles. AFAR will receive 65% of the benefit’s proceeds; Arizona AIDS Fund Trust, 35%.

Taylor received the fund’s

Woman of the Year award for her AIDS efforts, LaCroix, the Man of the Year for his contribution, and First Lady Nancy Reagan the Humanitarian Award. The First Lady’s award was picked up for her by Dorothy Wrigley Chauncey.

For this event, Taylor personally asked her longtime friend Bob Hope to be emcee. As thanks to Hope, Taylor said she would appear on a television show with him later in the year.

The Registry Resort, on Scottsdale Road, was headquarters for benefit organizers and entertainers, among them actor George Hamilton, who would serve as auctioneer for $37,000 worth of donated items, paintings, a 14-karat gold necklace and a $14,000 mink coat.

Other entertainers included Melissa Manchester, country-pop group Sawyer Brown and Broadway stars from “A Chorus Line” and “Cats.”


Before the event, Grace Haynes, the 27-year-old woman who heads the Arizona AIDS Fund Trust, agonized over what she perceived as a lukewarm local reaction to the fund’s attempt to put on a glittery moneymaker for AIDS.

The Arizona AIDS Fund Trust was founded in January, 1983, by two Phoenix businessmen, Robert Hegyi and Charles Stanley, to assist AIDS patients in the area. To date, 88 cases of AIDS have been diagnosed in the state, the majority of them in Phoenix and Tucson, which has an AIDS support group similar to that of the fund.

Died at Age 39

Stanley, a personal friend of Haynes, died at age 39 from complications of AIDS in September, 1983, and Haynes decided to volunteer for work with the fund. A former X-ray technician at a Phoenix hospital, Haynes, along with Stanley’s sister, Linda, inherited Stanley’s gay bar in Phoenix after his death. Haynes became director of the fund, which has about 100 volunteers, in June, 1985.

“We don’t get a lot of support here from the city, county or state,” Haynes explained. “They’ve all done brochures, but given us no funding. The county is in the process of working out a grant, but it’s slow. That’s why we wanted to have this fund-raiser.”

The “Gift to Life” benefit started out as a small charity dinner, but became a full-blown fund-raiser when Arabian horse breeder Aude Espourteille suggested getting members of the Arabian horse community involved. What better time to do it, Espourteille reasoned, than during the annual Arabian sales in Scottsdale in February.

“I don’t know a thing about horses,” Haynes admitted. “I know they have a head and a rear and are very beautiful animals. But I went to the Lasma auction Friday night just to see what it was like. It was courageous of LaCroix and his friends to do this. They have been very supportive.”


According to Espourteille, 34, who has an Arabian horse ranch in Oregon and has been in the horse business for 15 years, LaCroix, his sons Gene and Raymond, and Arabian breeders David Murdock of Los Angeles and Tom Chauncey Sr. of Scottsdale, became the mainstays behind the charity auction and enlisted seven other friends to donate horses to the cause.

“When people learn the facts about AIDS,” said LaCroix, “it scares the pants off everybody. Most people don’t realize that if it continues the way it’s going, one-third of the world’s population could be infected 10 years from now. But there are a lot of people still sticking their heads in the sand.”

Haynes said that Phoenix has a large gay community, more than 100,000. “But a lot of people are still very much in the closet,” she added. “Because of that, we believe there are twice as many people with AIDS than the figures show.”

Fund Criticized

The fund had been criticized locally for its choice of out-of-town publicists and caterers, but Haynes defended the decisions, saying they had offered her the best financial arrangements and had previous experience in putting on large events.

Scott Barton, a Los Angeles publicist, and Chen Sam, who represents Elizabeth Taylor, worked for a small fee, Haynes said, “and (caterer) Rococo (in Los Angeles) was the best deal we could get.” she said. “They are concerned with the cause and I felt totally confident in them. We did talk to caterers here, but they didn’t seem to have the experience in putting on something so big. Dinner came out to about $40 a plate, and with the other expenses, it was probably about $80 in all (per plate).”

Last week, Haynes added the local public relations firm of Joanne Ralston & Associates assisted with last-minute coordination of the event.


“You have to realize some people

here are a little bit shy of us (because the fund is a primarily gay organization). It has a lot to do with education, and we need a lot more of that. People never really understood about this disease and they formed their own opinions. When AIDS first appeared it was known as a gay plague, and I don’t think the majority of people in this area ever let that go.

“This is not Los Angeles,” Haynes said of Phoenix. “This is a small town that’s growing into a big city overnight. People are trying to cope with it. Buildings are going up and it looks like a big city, but it doesn’t have the atmosphere of one. Everybody wants it to be, but we’re not quite there yet.”

Inside the large white tent at Lasma, tables were decorated with flowers and pink and white balloons, and an orchestra played under blue klieg lights.

Once under way, the dinner of marinated broiled lamb and vegetables went smoothly, except that more guests showed up than expected and many of the volunteer workers had to give up their dinners.

There were press representatives from France, Latin America, Japan and Mexico as well as U.S. networks and local stations.

At the show, auctioneer George Hamilton was remarkably effective in getting bids for items, raising about $40,000 in all. Entertainers received a standing ovation from the crowd for their performances before everyone filed out for the sales pavilion.


But the evening’s events were nearly two hours behind schedule, and many of the guests simply went home. Others left grumbling, because at the last minute, LaCroix and his staff had decided to change plans for the sale of the horses, going to a drawing format rather than a real auction.

LaCroix explained his decision later, saying, “We decided this would be a new concept and more exciting for the people who never have been to a horse auction. With the auction, we could have raised more money for funds for AIDS, but because the time schedule went sour, we lost half or more than half of the crowd after dinner. Only about 300 or so people were left. It would have gone better had it not run so late.” The event, which began with cocktails at 5:30 p.m., ended at 1:45 a.m.

LaCroix said he and his staff decided about 5 p.m. to switch to the raffle concept.

Patrons purchased tickets for $500 apiece for 10 of the mares. After each horse was led across the stage and back, names of winners were drawn for each.

Appraised at $538,000

The one horse that actually was sold in auction was the best of the show, a Bask daughter named Queen Bask, appraised at $538,000.

Queen Bask, ridden on the stage by trainer Joanne Fox, was donated by Tom Chauncey of Scottsdale. She was purchased for $350,000 by LaCroix, who had bred the mare and sold her to Chauncey in 1980, his daughter Kathy and son-in-law Tom Chauncey Jr. Under the stage lights, all the horses glittered with sprayed-on gold specks, their eyes and dark muzzles accentuated with black greasepaint.

“My daughter just loves the mare, and the price was right,” said LaCroix afterward. “So we bought her. We didn’t want to waste an opportunity to retrieve her at a reasonable price.”


Although the other 10 mares had earlier been valued at a total of $552,320, in the raffle they brought a total of $283,000, according to LaCroix.

Most patrons bought more then one ticket trying to enhance their chances, and actor Hamilton won two horses.

“I think it was handled in the best way possible,” said breeder Jerry Vanier, who donated his mare Penzhina, along with a breeding service to the stallion Padron. She was appraised at $46,000. “You wouldn’t get any non-horse people bidding $80,000 to $100,000, and this way they could spend $500 and win a horse.

Upset, Disappointed

“The idea of the whole thing was trying to introduce a bunch of new people to the horse thing and to raise money for AIDS, which is really important,” Vanier continued.

Aude Espourteille, who had come up with the concept for the auction, said she was upset and disappointed that the sale of the horses hadn’t brought more money for AIDS. She earlier had estimated that if the horses sold at their appraised value, the AIDS charities would get more than $1 million.

“When they found out what was happening, all the donors were really upset with me,” she said. “They came up to me and said, ‘What are they doing?’ and I said it was out of my hands. I told them I couldn’t do anything about it (the change in format). It was too late.”


Espourteille insisted that “at least 200 people from the horse industry wanted to buy horses. Even if they had averaged $50,000, we’d have raised $500,000 on the 10.

“I’m disappointed, but I’ll do it again,” said Espourteille. “The next time, though, I’ll stay in total control. But, the good thing that came out of this is, even if we didn’t make the money we wanted, we made people aware of this disease and the tragedy of it. We got emotional and financial involvement for the cause of AIDS research and education, and that’s what is needed. We made a whole bunch of people aware.”