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Persistence Pays Off : Wilton, Calif., Woman Braves War-Torn Eastern Europe to Recover Her Trotter

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Eastern Europe, they refer to Judy Hannah as “that persistent American woman.”

In Northern California, attorney Chris Bardis says of Hannah: “You’ve got to tip your hat to her.”

It’s the story of the lady and her horse, a story with a happy ending now that Thadrow, once the 3-year-old trotter of the year in California, is back home at Judy and Marvin Hannah’s small farm, getting ready to race again.

“He spotted a horse trailer the other day,” Judy Hannah said. “He acted like he didn’t like the looks of it.”

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Thadrow, now an 8-year-old, has every cause to feel road-weary. He is one of the most traveled horses in harness history. Through a sale that went sour when an $83,000 check proved worthless, he wound up in the former Yugoslav federation, racing and being bred to broodmares, while Judy Hannah spent three years trying to recover him. Her struggles with international red tape took her to Eastern Europe four times, traveling from city to city and jurisdiction to jurisdiction. She waged her own private war while a full-fledged war raged around her.

“I tried to have tunnel vision when I was there,” Hannah said. “But you couldn’t miss the tanks. It was pretty scary, with the tanks rolling down the streets. If they had ever closed the borders, I was worried that I might wind up living there.”

Both Hannah and Thadrow came away unscathed, the horse finally taking a circuitous route that ended at the Hannahs’ farm in Wilton, Calif., 35 miles south of Sacramento, on Dec. 18.

“He arrived at 8:30 in the morning,” Hannah said. “We had a party for him. He had lost about 150 pounds since I had last seen him, but they had taken good care of him. He knew he was home.”

The Hannahs bred Thadrow, matching up the stallion Thadius Hanover with the broodmare Beeeee Rowdy. In his first three years of racing, at Los Alamitos and the Cal Expo in Sacramento, the colt raced 56 times, winning 16, finishing second or third in 25 starts and earning $179,845.

In February of 1991, shortly before the Los Alamitos season was scheduled to open, Cedomir Mihaglovic, an executive with Minolta in Eastern Europe, put together an $83,000 package for Thadrow and Cuban Starlet and Little Sur, two horses owned by Bardis. The Hannahs were supposed to receive $50,000 of the amount for Thadrow.

“Thadrow was special to us,” Judy Hannah said. “But Marvin had cancer and had undergone gall bladder surgery the year before, and we could have used the money.”

Mihaglovic had been in Southern California the year before, buying horses, so the Hannahs trusted him and the three horses were exchanged before his certified check, written on a bank in Vienna, reached their bank in San Francisco. Two months after the sale, with the horses on their way, the Hannahs were told by their bank that Mihaglovic’s check was invalid.

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The Hannahs filed charges in Orange County against Mihaglovic, contacted Interpol and Judy Hannah spoke to the horse dealer on the phone a few times. “All I got was false promises,” she said.

In June, she received a call from Fritz Haug, a trainer in Vienna. He was racing a horse there and said that Thadrow and Little Sur were entered in the same race. In a matter of days, Hannah, who works full time as a bookkeeper besides tending to the family farm, contacted Austrian authorities and was on a plane to Vienna.

Local police were at the track, waiting to arrest Mihaglovic and claim the horses, but because of the war in the former Yugoslavia federation, neither the man nor the horses were able to get to Austria.

“I spent three days there,” Hannah said. “Most of it in the police station.”

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According to the racing program in Vienna, Thadrow had raced seven times, with two victories and two thirds, since leaving the United States.

Officials at Minolta said that they had fired Mihaglovic. Around Christmas of 1992, Judy Hannah traveled to Eastern Europe for a court hearing involving Mihaglovic. He was a no-show, and his trainer appeared to say that he was also owed money.

Steve Desomer, a Belgian driver-trainer who works in California, introduced Hannah to an interpreter, and she stayed 11 days, getting videotapes of some of Thadrow’s races and learning that he had been bred to at least 25 mares.

“People were coming out of the woodwork, wanting to buy this horse if I could get my hands on him,” Hannah said. “But their best price was $4,500.”

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When Hannah got her passport several years ago, she had intended to visit her daughter, who then lived in Japan. Now Hannah was getting all these other stamps on the document, and last February she was on a plane again, this time headed for Budapest in Hungary. She was there three days, still searching for Thadrow, and this time she spent most of her time at the Hippodrome racetrack.

She made her last trip in November, a nine-day stay that resulted in Budapest racing authorities conceding that Thadrow was her horse. She had hired Bruno de Berdt, an international horse shipper from Acton, Calif.

“I had shipped the horses over there for Mihaglovic originally,” de Berdt said. “I only got about 80% of my money.”

After blood tests for Thadrow cleared, he was shipped to Budapest. Then he took a three-day truck ride to Amsterdam. From there, he was flown on Dec. 8 to New York, where federal officials were wary of allowing him into the country.

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“We had no proof that he had left Yugoslavia, where everything was in disarray,” de Berdt said. “But finally what documentation we did have was convincing enough.”

There were only a few other horses scheduled to make coast-to-coast trips, so to save the Hannahs several thousand dollars, Thadrow was vanned instead of flown West. He arrived at the Hannahs’ farm as a fitting early Christmas gift.

Bardis has written off his part of the deal, a loss of $33,000, and knows he will never see his two horses again.

“I wasn’t as fortunate,” Bardis said. “Since my horses weren’t as valuable as Thadrow, and knowing what I know about international law, it would have been pointless to pursue my end.”

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Marvin Hannah is working again, helping Desomer at the barn at Los Alamitos.

“I don’t know when Thad will start racing again,” Judy Hannah said. “It’d be nice if he was able to make it for the opener at the Cal Expo, in late April. But whatever we do, we won’t be racing him in claiming races. That’s for sure.”


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