STILL A CHAMPION : Town Policy's Racing Career Worthy of a Movie Script

Times Staff Writer

The mourners drifted from the unmarked lakeside grave, across the grass and back to the barn area.

Brad McKinzie watched them leave as he went about the task of helping run the publicity department at Los Alamitos Race Course. From the fifth-story perch of the Los Alamitos press box, McKinzie happened to look up once more and saw a lone figure walking toward the lake.

"He stood there for an hour, at least," McKinzie said. "He was just looking at the ground. I couldn't tell if he was saying anything, he just stood there, looking at the ground."

Frozen there was Kenny Hart, a quarter horse jockey, and he, like the others, had come to mourn a racehorse.

Six years ago, Town Policy, an 8-year-old gelding, died and there would be no miracle comeback. They had brought him back from the dead once in Mexico, but there was nothing they could do for his broken shoulder.

They buried him in the Los Alamitos infield, the only horse to be accorded such an honor.

Hart, who has broken nearly every bone in his body riding horses, has won nearly every race there is to win. He's the sport's all-time leading stakes rider. He has sad eyes deeply set in a creased face. His is a dour expression so common to the men who compete in this sport that identifies itself so closely to the old west.

But there he stood, head down, mouth closed, crying for a horse.

Blane Schvaneveldt had led those mourners who had gone before Hart. Schvaneveldt is to the sport of quarter-horse racing what Ruth, Cobb, DiMaggio and Mays, combined, were to theirs. He has been the dominant trainer for nearly two decades, has won everything worth winning several times. His ability has landed him hundreds of clients bringing with them thousands of horses. They come and they go.

His expression, like his wardrobe--Western shirt, cowboy hat, boots, blue jeans worn low below a free-flowing midsection--rarely changes. He talks, smiles and frowns very little.

But he cried the day they buried Town Policy, broke down some say, his overt show of emotion stunning even those closest to him.

"I have never seen my father like that," said Shawna Mitchell, Schvaneveldt's daughter.

It was the measure of the horse that his passing could so change two men. In eight years the horse did unparalleled things on and off the race track. His way of winning, losing, disappearing and dying inspired a book, a movie script and virtually everyone who came in contact with him.

On Oct. 20, 1977, Mike Chambless, Schvaneveldt's right-hand man, walked to Schvaneveldt's barn in Stanton and found Town Policy's paddock door open and the horse gone.

He told Shirley Schvaneveldt, Blane's wife, who got a hold of her husband at Los Angeles International Airport. Blane was about to leave LAX for a horse sale in Oklahoma City.

She told him the horse was gone and had probably been stolen. Town Policy was a valuable commodity, having won eight of his first nine races as a 2-year-old. He was easily on pace to become the first 2-year old to win $1 million.

Schvaneveldt had raised the horse from birth. He still has Town Policy's mother, Camptown Girl, who's 25. Schvaneveldt didn't own the horse; Ivan Ashment, a wealthy Idaho potato farmer, did.

It was Ashment, in the late 1950s, who gave Schvaneveldt his first big barn of horses.

"Ivan had been used to losing a lot in racing," Schvaneveldt said. "But we got together and made a lot of money. A lot of money."

The relationship spanned 30 years--Ashment died four years ago--and some of the best horses in the sport. But Town Policy was in a class alone.

The news of the horse's disappearance spread quickly through racing circles. Not only was the horse good, he had that certain something that attracted fans and endeared him to those who worked with him. It might have been the fact that Town Policy was shorter, about six inches, than most quarter horses.

"Don't ask me what it was, because I can't tell you," Schvaneveldt said. "All I know is that that horse had something special. There have been other horses that have been as successful but none has been more popular."

Almost immediately, the rumors of his whereabouts ricocheted off Los Alamitos' barns.

Ashment, against police advice, offered a $15,000 reward for information leading to the return of the horse. The calls started.

"They called us from everywhere in world and everyone claimed they knew where he was," Schvaneveldt said. "One time they called us and told us that he was on a boat leaving out of San Francisco headed for Australia. It was just goofy stuff all the time."

There were sightings all along California and in Mexico. One man claimed he knew where to find the horse in Texas, but refused to give details.

"He wanted a trailer, truck, a horse and some money to trade with," Schvaneveldt said.

If Schvaneveldt is anything it is a practical man, and this was anything but a practical proposal. But affection can skew a man's logic. Schvaneveldt gave the guy what he wanted.

"We never saw him again," he said. "We found out he took the horse and was match racing it in El Paso."

Most rumors pointed toward Mexico, where quarter-horse match racing was, and is, very popular. Match racing is the most basic form of racing. Two owners decided on a bet, put their horses at a starting line and the winner takes all. Other bets are placed among spectators. It's not unusual for match races to be worth $100,000.

Mexico was where most people thought the horse had been taken. Caesar Dominguez, a trainer who has many Mexican owners as clients, was questioned by FBI agents the day the horse disappeared.

"I told them that was the first I had heard of it," Dominguez said.

Later, Dominguez would get wind that Town Policy's disappearance also was sending shock waves through the Mexican match race circuit. Owners of match horses suddenly became convinced that everyone else had Town Policy.

"The whole thrill of match racing a horse with another guy is he doesn't know what you got and you don't know what he's got," Dominguez said. "All of a sudden the whole country knew Town Policy was missing. If you were a matchmaker and you knew you didn't have Town Policy and someone walked up to you and said, 'Hey, I'll match you for $100,000,' with a horse you didn't know, the first thing you're going to think is that he has Town Policy. Everyone thought everyone else had him."

And so it went for six months. Each day, each crank phone call loosened Schvaneveldt's grip on hope.

Then a call came from Mexican police that told him they believed the horse was in Chihuahua, a state just south of the Texas-New Mexico border. Ashment and Schvaneveldt flew down. They were taken to an empty barn. Schvaneveldt spotted a hoof print with a bar running across. Town Policy, to protect a sore foot, had a bar across his shoe. Schvaneveldt knew the horse had been there but had no idea where he was.

"We flew home very discouraged," he said.

A week later, another call came from the Mexican police. They had found the horse in the state of Durango standing in a cornfield. They arrested an old man who was sitting with the horse, but it turned out he was simply paid to watch Town Policy.

Schvaneveldt flew down to find the horse scratched, emaciated and with a 104-degree temperature.

"He looked like hell," he said.

No arrests were ever made concerning the horse's disappearance. To this day it's a mystery what happened to him in Mexico. Many believed he was raced, there were reports of a small bay gelding winning a $100,000 match race near Mexico City.

But Schvaneveldt said that from looking at the horse he could tell he hadn't been run.

Either way, quarter-horse racing's greatest 2-year-old had been resurrected in a Mexican cornfield. The future for an animal that had been through something so traumatic, was uncertain, but at least, he had been found.

The Los Alamitos Derby is the most competitive quarter-horse race for a 3-year-old. The 36th running of the race, this one worth $109,200, takes place tonight.

Unlike other derbys, where owners must nominate a horse months and sometimes years ahead of time, the Los Alamitos Derby allows owners to enter horses until two weeks before the race. That means a late developer, a horse on a hot streak, can make it.

"It's open to anything and anybody," Schvaneveldt said. "The toughest (quarter horse) derby in the world."

Had he not disappeared, Town Policy would have been an overwhelming favorite to win the 1978 derby. But those who saw him, saw the scratches and his ribs clearly outlined under his undernourished coat, knew he would never run in the derby just 10 weeks after being found.

In fact, many wondered if he would ever race again, or if Town Policy would become a cherished relic that kids could pet and that experts of the sport could wonder: "What if?"

Nevertheless, Schvaneveldt nominated the horse for the derby. Most thought he was doing it purely out of affection for the horse. But Schvaneveldt had seen the horse make remarkable progress in his first few weeks back.

Hart, who had ridden Town Policy for most of the horse's career, was aboard one training session leading into the Derby trials. The horse so scorched the track that as Hart brought him back to the barn area he cracked that painful smile and said to bystanders, "I believe he is back."

With Hart aboard, and he claims that's all it was ("I just sat there and hung on."), Town Policy won his Derby trial race in the record time of 21.62.

Stunning as that victory was, many still dismissed it as a fluke.

The derby was run the next week. With Hart aboard, Town Policy simply blew by his competition. The stunning result was that he won the derby by 2 1/2 lengths and in a record time of 21.60 seconds.

"He took it as easy as breaking sticks," Hart said.

A big crowd had turned out to see the race, those who were familiar with the story line cheered and laughed and cried.

McKinzie was an avid horse racing fan who was attending Arizona State in 1978. He was so intrigued by the story, he had driven to the track to see if the impossible could happen. When it did he still didn't believe it.

"Everybody just went nuts," said McKinzie, now editor of Quarterweek magazine. "It was about the loudest I've ever heard a crowd at Los Alamitos."

Knowledgeable fans and those involved in the sport searched for comparisons and parallels to the performance they had just seen and came up empty.

"A lot of us were in shock over what we had just seen," Dominguez said.

Because of the sport's relative obscurity as compared to thoroughbred racing, it may be hard to understand what Town Policy accomplished that night.

But imagine a male sprinter at the top of his form, who, for whatever reason, not only does not train for six months, but is kept in conditions that actually cause his body to deteriorate. Imagine that sprinter, in a little more than two months, coming back to win the Olympic 100-meter dash.

It has been said that man's destiny is not only to survive but to prevail. Blane Schvaneveldt always said Town Policy was more human than horse.

Over the next five years, Town Policy won many races. He became, and remains, the only horse to win the top race at Los Alamitos for 2- (Kindergarten) 3- (Los Alamitos Derby) and 4-year-olds (Los Alamitos Maturity). The longer he ran, the more his legend grew. A father raised on baseball might take his children to see Nolan Ryan. A father raised around horses took his kids to see Town Policy.

The story was so intriguing, the plot so ridiculously melodramatic that a book was written about the horse. A screenplay also was written and sold to a studio, but it was never produced. Schvaneveldt would travel to various tracks and find kids wearing Town Policy caps and T-shirts. At home, the Schvaneveldts received letters from kids telling them how much they admired the horse.

"There's never been another one like him," Schvaneveldt said.

Schvaneveldt has had many great horses, but none touched the chord in him that this one did. He counted him as one of the family.

"It was like he was one of the kids," Shawna said.

Hart, who always instructed jockeys to keep their emotional distance from their horses--"The key is to keep from getting attached to them," he once said--is unashamed to say, "I loved him."

In probably the most memorable race of Hart's career, he was aboard Town Policy for the 1980 Los Alamitos Championship, just six days after a bad fall had left him with a cracked shoulder and a punctured lung.

Doctors had advised at least a month of hospital rest, so Schvaneveldt had put another jockey on the horse, but Hart begged to be put on.

He was and he and Town Policy won the race. But the horse took such a beating during the race that Hart ended up draped over Town Policy like a cavalry scout who had just taken one in the back.

"A couple of the other jockeys saw I was in trouble and they headed toward me," Hart said.

But before they got to Hart, Town Policy turned around on his own and lopped to the winner's circle with Hart barely hanging on.

"He knew what was going on and he knew what to do," Hart said. "He knew the winner's circle was his place."

It was in October of 1983, in a undistinguished allowance race, that Hart felt the horse take a bad step and start fading to the left, eventually brushing against the inside rail.

Later that night, veterinarians confirmed everyone's worst fear. The horse had a broken shoulder and would have to be put down.

The veterinarians said they would do it in the morning. McKinzie, dispatched by Schvaneveldt, rushed to find Millie Vessels, then the owner of Los Alamitos, and asked permission to bury the horse in the infield. Vessels said yes.

That night Hart went home but couldn't sleep. Finally he got up, drove back to Los Alamitos and sat in the stall with Town Policy until the sun came up.

They backed a trailer to the paddock that morning and loaded the horse in it. They would transport the horse to the infield, where a grave had been dug, and they would administer the lethal injection.

Before the trailer left his barn at Los Alamitos, Schvaneveldt walked in and petted the horse's nose. As if hugging goodby, the horse put his head on Schvaneveldt's shoulder.

"He knew where he was going," he said.

Schvaneveldt lost control.

"It was pretty moving to see a rough and tumble guy like Blane break down over a horse," McKinzie said.

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