Alydar (left) lost by a head to Affirmed in the thrilling 1978 Belmont Stakes.
Alydar (left) lost by a head to Affirmed in the thrilling 1978 Belmont Stakes.
AP/Wide World

Blaming the Barn Door

The mysterious 1990 death of thoroughbred legend Alydar has become the JFK assassination of the horse-racing world. It may be one step closer to being solved.

Alydar gained fame with a thrilling 1978 duel with Affirmed; he finished second to Affirmed in all three of that year's Triple Crown races, losing by a neck in the Preakness and, as millions of rapt thoroughbred fans watched, losing by a head in the Belmont Stakes.

Alydar retired to stud on Kentucky's Calumet Farm, a longtime power in breeding racehorses that began facing severe money problems in the late 1980s. On a November night in 1990, only weeks before a $35 million insurance policy on Alydar was set to expire, the horse was found in its stall with a bone protruding through the skin of its right hind leg. The door of its stall had been knocked off the roller guide on the floor that held it in place; farm officials said Alydar broke its leg by kicking the door off the roller.

Attempts to treat the leg failed, and Alydar was euthanized days later.

The suspicious circumstances surrounding the death -- a longtime employee was asked to take the night off; the watchman who replaced him was later convicted of making false statements to federal officials -- have long fueled conspiracy theories.

In February, Calumet Farm's president and its chief financial officer were convicted in a Houston federal court of conspiracy, fraud and attempting to bribe a bank officer to obtain loans. District Judge Sim Lake barred any testimony about how Alydar might have died, however, deeming it irrelevant.

Until now, federal prosecutors have been mum on what they thought happened in the stall that night. But as the sentencing phase of the defendants' trial approaches, prosecutors now say the evidence is "compelling" and "persuasive" that Alydar was intentionally injured in order to collect insurance money.

"To believe otherwise, one would have to accept a string of coincidences that defy common sense and reject the conclusions" of an expert witness from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to a court filing by assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Powers.

The MIT professor, George Pratt, is chairman of the Racetrack Safety committee of the National Association of Thoroughbred Owners. His report says there's no way Alydar could have produced the force necessary to knock the door off, and that bolts holding the door in place had been cut. Someone scattered pieces of the broken door and roller "beforehand and placed it in the aisle with the intention that it be found and serve as an explanation of how Alydar came to break his leg while confined to his stall," his report says.

"This horse didn't slip on a bar of soap, and the proffered explanation -- that he kicked down a barn door weighing several hundred pounds -- doesn't hold water," Powers said in an interview.

What did happen that night, the government isn't so sure about. "There is no evidence as to how Alydar's leg was broken," according to the court filing, which seeks sentencing beyond the minimum guidelines. "However, for our purposes such is not required. However it was broken, it was not the result of an accident."

The defendants, former Calumet Farm president John Lundy and former chief financial officer Gary Matthews, face up to 30 years in prison. Attorneys for the two, including noted Houston defense lawyer Dan Cogdell, could not be reached, but both had pledged to appeal the convictions when the jury verdict came down February 7.

The government's conclusion about what happened to Alydar was challenged by Houston attorney Christopher Goldsmith. He represented Alton Stone, the former Calumet groom convicted of making false statements to investigators about events the night of Alydar's injury.

Goldsmith noted that a report by the FBI lab was inconclusive as to what happened, and that defense witnesses at Stone's trial, including highly regarded equine surgeons, testified that Alydar's injury was self-inflicted.

He ridiculed the feds' position that no one could know how Alydar was hurt. "Gee, government, you've got the FBI lab, you've had all this time to study it, and you still don't know jack-squat," he said.

Powers said that the FBI report was "irrelevant" because the bureau's investigators did not visit the site to examine the bolts used to hold in the door.

As for the testimony at Stone's trial, prosecutors said in their court document that it was faulty.

"The veterinarians who testified at Stone's trial said that Alydar's injury was consistent with his leg being caught in the door of the stable. This testimony was based on the 'fact' that Alydar kicked his door so hard that it broke the roller," the filing said. "The report by Dr. Pratt establishes that the roller was not broken by a kick from the horse. Consequently, the premise for the veterinarians' opinions is rendered invalid. Indeed, Dr. Pratt has concluded that the broken roller was 'staged' as part of a scheme."

Pratt is scheduled to testify at the sentencing phase, so thoroughbred fans will have a chance to see if his theory stands up under cross-examination. That showdown had been scheduled for this month, but the defense is expected to receive a delay to study the report.


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