07/22/2003 11:00PM

Ferdinand's fate remains unsure amid speculation

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The exact fate of 1986 Kentucky Derby winner and 1987 Horse of the Year Ferdinand remained unclear Wednesday, a day after a published report suggested that the horse died in a Japanese slaughterhouse in September of 2002.

A Tokyo-based Associated Press reporter quoted a Japanese horse dealer named Yoshikazu Watanabe as saying that Ferdinand, who would have been 20 this year, was "disposed of during the last year." Watanabe gave no details as to how the horse died but said he had given the horse to a friend when the horse showed signs of failing health. But a Thoroughbred trade publication, The Blood-Horse magazine, reported that "in Japan, the term 'disposed of' is used to mean slaughtered."

The Blood-Horse did not provide any other information about the cause of Ferdinand's death. But the magazine did quote one of the stallion's former grooms, who knew Ferdinand last resided at Goshima Farm in Atsuga. That groom, Shinji Kono, said a friend of his working at Goshima Farm told him that in the fall of 2002 Ferdinand "wasn't there anymore. He said the boss had said something about the horse's leaving there probably meant it was the end of the line."

Despite the lack of details about Ferdinand's death, the news of his demise and the possibility that his life ended in a slaughterhouse upset many people in the Thoroughbred industry and prompted comparisons to Exceller's death. Exceller, who was inducted into racing's Hall of Fame in 1999, was found out that year to have been slaughtered in Sweden some time before.

California-based bloodstock agent Rollin Baugh - who brokered the deal that sent Charismatic, the 1999 Kentucky Derby winner and Horse of the Year, from the Farish family's Lane's End Farm in Versailles, Ky., to the Japan Racing Association - was among those anguished by the Ferdinand story.

"If it did happen the way it has been described, it's horrendous," he said. "There's no question that there are many, many people who would have been willing to pay to bring him back here, if they had known. Or, my God, what a wonderful gift the horse would have been to the Kentucky Horse Park."

Baugh suggested that Thoroughbred owners include a stipulation in sale contracts that buyers notify them when the horse is to be sold next, a requirement that could help prevent horses like Ferdinand from slipping into an oblivion that could include abuse, neglect, or slaughter.

But, Baugh cautioned, the vague language surrounding Ferdinand's story makes misinterpretation possible. "And I think it's disproportionate to be taking on Japan culturally," he said. "That's like saying if someone kills a horse in central Kentucky, everyone in central Kentucky is a horse killer. There are so many good people in Japan, too.

"From terrible things, some good can come," Baugh added. "Exceller's demise spurred lots of good people to get actively involved in groups to prevent this kind of thing. It's tragic, but Ferdinand is going to fuel more actions that will help more horses."

Organizers of a Wednesday night fundraiser for Old Friends hope so. The Old Friends Farm near Midway, Ky., was just established this summer as a place for pensioned stallions. The group, whose board includes Rick Trontz, owner of Hopewell Farm, is trying to secure the return of 1991 Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold from stud in Turkey.

"Hopefully, Old Friends will be able to prevent stories like Ferdinand's," Trontz said, adding that interest in the group's fundraiser had peaked in the wake of the Ferdinand episode.