12/23/2017 11:33AM

Remembering old friends Fanfreluche and Optimistic Gal


Through the holiday season, I'm posting stories from my 2002 book OLD FRIENDS, reflecting the lives of beloved senior Thoroughbreds, all of whom lived out their lives with dignity.  Seems a good time for feel-good stories, and looking through the book recently brought back memories of each wonderful subject.

Some are famous, names known to every racing fan; while, in other cases, they are known only to diehard fans.  These two lovely mares fall somewhere in between, perhaps, but they were certainly familiar names during their lifetimes.

The below story appears as it read in the book.

Fanfreluche (left)

b. m. 1967-1999, by Northern Dancer—Ciboulette, by Chop Chop

Optimistic Gal

b. m. 1973-1999, by Sir Ivor—Hopes Ahead, by Traffic Judge

They socialized, raised children together, even quarreled. In their old age, the two gals became best friends. One was an extrovert, a lady who enjoyed visiting and exploring. The other, shy and not particularly friendly, let her outgoing friend lead as she stayed in the background.

They led grand lives. Each was a star athlete many moons ago, and both were good mothers. One even survived a kidnapping of international proportions. For years, the two ladies lived side by side. 

Watching them grazing far off in a field on Old Frankfort Pike in Midway, KY, they looked merely like two old brown horses. Yet they were so much more.

Above:  Optimistic Gal, 25, and Fanfreluche, 31, at Big Sink Farm in 1998

Fanfreluche was a handsome bay daughter of Northern Dancer, out of the stakes-winning Ciboulette. She won 11 of 21 starts in her two years on the track, finishing off the board just twice. For owner Jean-Louis Levesque and trainer John Starr, she won the Natalma, Princess Elizabeth, and Alabama stakes and the Quebec Derby, and finished second in the Queen’s Plate. When Fanfreluche galloped home in the Manitoba Centennial Derby, Queen Elizabeth II was part of the appreciative audience.

Fanfreluche’s accomplishments earned her the crown as Canada’s Horse of the Year in 1970. That same year, she shared U.S. champion three-year-old filly honors with Office Queen. While preparing for her return at four, she ruptured a tendon sheath and was retired.

Fanfreluche had already produced two babies by the time her friend-to-be Optimistic Gal was born in 1973.

A long, rangy unmarked bay, Optimistic Gal raced two years in Diana Firestone’s colors. The Leroy Jolley trainee won 13 of her 21 starts, including 6 grade 1s. Six years after Fanfreluche invaded Saratoga to take the Alabama, Optimistic Gal won the same event. She also took the Delaware Handicap and the Matron, Frizette, Selima, and Spinster stakes, earning $686,861.

Despite an outstanding career, a championship eluded the lovely filly, and she was retired in late 1976.

Fanfreluche was a wonderful broodmare from the outset. Her first foal, L’Enjoleur, was a grade 1 winner. Just four years after Fanfreluche left racing, L’Enjoleur was named Canadian champion two-year-old colt and Horse of the Year. The following year he was both champion three-year-old colt and, again, Horse of the Year.

Fanfreluche’s second foal, L’Extravagante, ran third in the Canadian Oaks. Her third foal, Grand Luxe, won 10 of 25 races, including three stakes. 

Her fourth, La Voyageuse, earned more than $500,000, winning 26 of 56 starts, including the Canadian Oaks and 12 other stakes. She was Canada’s champion three-year-old filly in 1978.

That same year her half brother Medaille d’Or, Fanfreluche’s fifth foal, won the Coronation Futurity on his way to the two-year-old colt championship. With two championship offspring in the same season, Fanfreluche was named 1978 Sovereign Award winner for Canada’s Broodmare of the Year.

The year before, however, Fanfreluche had been on a most unusual adventure - the stuff of mystery novels. 

On June 25, 1977, the staff at Claiborne Farm, where Fanfreluche was boarded, made a terrifying discovery: Fanfreluche had been stolen from her paddock. The crime, reported initially to the police, was quickly turned over to the FBI.

No doubt about it, Fanfreluche was very valuable. Theories for the theft swirled around three possible motives. Ransom was the most obvious, but weeks passed and no demands came.

Fanfreluche was in foal to Secretariat, and perhaps the motive was to use the foal as a ringer. It could either outrun its pedigree in a gambling coup or even be used for breeding.

The third option, the least likely, was political revenge. Fanfreluche’s owner, Jean-Louis Levesque, was an important industrialist who had political influence.

The FBI released Fanfreluche’s identification photos to racetracks, farms, and newswires. Fanfreluche’s markings, including her star, two hind socks, coronet spots, and even tattoo number became common knowledge among horsemen. But month after month passed with no sign of the kidnapped mare.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. On December 8, 1977, the racing world breathed a tremendous sigh of relief at the news: Fanfreluche had been found.

How or why she ended up 150 miles from Claiborne in Tompkinsville, KY, is still a mystery. Local residents Larry and Sandra McPherson received a call from a friend in early July that one of their horses was loose. They went to investigate and found a stout bay mare wandering along the roadside. 

She had rope burns along her left hind leg and behind one ear, with scratches along her broad back. She wore no halter, but when they caught her she followed them willingly back to their house. 

The McPhersons asked around town whether anyone was missing a horse. Even when they heard about a missing prized racehorse way off in Paris, KY, it didn’t dawn on them that the mare they’d found could be Fanfreluche. The years far from the track had taken away her racy look. 

They named her Brandy and kept her in a lumber shed behind their mobile home. They rode her several times, as Sandra later told The Blood-Horse. “She rides rough when she’s going slow, and she’s hard to hold back sometimes.”

It wasn’t until late autumn that they realized she was in foal, and soon afterward, on December 8, they were visited by the FBI, which had received a tip. Claiborne Farm president Seth Hancock accompanied agents to the McPherson home. Seth entered the shed and viewed the woolly, heavy mare. He checked her coronet spots and her lip tattoo and made a positive identification. Fanfreluche was taken back to Claiborne.

The December 12, 1977, Blood-Horse cover showed Fanfreluche looking happy and healthy, and heavy with foal. The headline brought smiles: A Christmas Present: Fanfreluche Home Safe at Claiborne.

Her 1978 foal was named Sain Et Sauf, French for “safe and sound.” He wasn’t one of her best racehorses, winning just 3 races and eventually being sold to India for stud duty. But Sain Et Sauf was undoubtedly her most welcome.

Fanfreluche was sold in 1978 to Bertram Firestone, and she produced one more outstanding racehorse. D’Accord, a grade 2 winner who earned $163,368, later became a successful New York sire.

Optimistic Gal’s offspring were, by comparison, unremarkable. 11 of her babies were winners, however, and she is the second dam of several stakes winners.

When Bert and Diana Firestone purchased Big Sink Farm in Midway, KY, Fanfreluche and Optimistic Gal came together.

Butch Murrell was a groom at Big Sink Farm, and he still works on the property, which is now owned by Three Chimneys Farm. He began rubbing horses long ago at King Ranch, working with such greats as Bee Mac and Middleground. Butch easily recalled other wonderful horses he groomed, names like Genuine Risk and Law Society, and top yearlings he took to auction.

“I’ve got over forty years with horses,” Butch said, his voice rich with a gentle Southern accent. “I worked at Big Sink Farm for 28 years. There were three owners during that time. I started here (on Big Sink property) in 1966. You know, you work with the mares, go to the breeding shed, work with the yearlings. 

“I took care of both mares, Fanfreluche and Optimistic Gal. They were different.

“Fanfreluche, she was just a sweet mare. You could do anything around her, and she never had any problem getting along with any of the other mares. She raised good babies, and she raised them well. Anything else I could say about her, it would all be good.

“Optimistic Gal, she was okay. She would make a mistake sometimes, when she was mad at another mare. She’d go to bite her, and she’d bite you instead. Other than that, she was fine, but she had a bit of an attitude, especially when you’d rub her. The fillies, they were more like her. But the colts were okay.”

When I visited Big Sink Farm in May 1998, Optimistic Gal was 25 years old and Fanfreluche 31. Both were long since pensioned, still living on the tremendous piece of property adjacent to Three Chimneys. A groom accompanied me to the paddock, but said that catching Optimistic Gal was probably out of the question. He was right.

Far away, two mares grazed in the warm afternoon sun. Both showed signs of age, and the unmarked bay’s head popped up as she heard us approach. Her long, sweeping tail, which would have otherwise swept the ground, was cut in European fashion.

Fanfreluche came to us readily, her head low and streaked with white reminders of age. She asked to be rubbed, but as I moved to touch her face her grumpy friend interjected. Optimistic Gal pinned her ears and gave her best cutting-horse imitation. Fanfreluche seemed to shrug and moved off to confer with her friend. 

Above: Optimistic Gal and below, Fanfreluche

They touched noses, the two senior citizens comparing notes about risk and reward. Oddly, the mare who’d been kidnapped two decades earlier trusted me. The risk of visiting was worth the reward of a kind word or gentle touch.

For Optimistic Gal, who spent years denying her name, the risk was definitely not worth it. She never did come very close.

She eventually persuaded Fanfreluche to accompany her to a far corner of the paddock, and the two mares walked away slowly in tandem. They were beautiful, those old gals, their tails swishing gently, with no need to go anywhere in a hurry.

The two gals lived together side by side, and the year after I saw them they died together. In mid-July 1999, the lovely Optimistic Gal passed away, and she was buried on the farm.

Within a matter of days, her life’s effort became too much for Franfreluche. At age 32, Canada’s 1970 Horse of the Year, who’d shared time with royalty and kidnappers, breathed her last. The gentle mare was buried next to her ornery old companion.

Big Sink Farm’s Barry Robinette found a lovely stone, had a metal plaque made, and placed the stone over Fanfreluche’s final resting place. He had hopes of finding a matching stone for Optimistic Gal, but before he could, the farm was sold and he changed jobs. Optimistic Gal’s grave, to Fanfreluche’s left, is still unmarked.

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As of December 2017, Optimistic Gal's grave is still unmarked.  We hope to change that in 2018.