San Diego Jill McEwan's life reads like a Dick Francis novel. McEwan, a graduate of USC's paralegal program, is a racehorse trainer who mixes horses and the law.
"I'm just like a home appraiser, except I appraise horses," she says. But in the money-driven, compulsive world of horseracing, she often becomes a linchpin in disputes that range from car-horse collisions to murder.
Take the 1995 trial over the 1977 disappearance of Brach candy heiress Helen Vorhees Brach. The widow had been romanced by a horse trader named Richard Bailey. Prosecutors alleged Bailey defrauded Brach out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by selling her loser horses at inflated prices.
At the Chicago trial in May 1995, where Bailey stood charged with soliciting Brach's murder, lawyers for the Brach estate claimed Bailey seduced the wealthy dowager into spending at least $300,000 for "virtually worthless" race and show horses.
Worthless? Not so, said Jill McEwan, equine appraiser, who was hired as an expert witness by Bailey's defense team. McEwan says the horses Bailey found for Brach came from good stock. Two of the three had been trained too hard and had sustained "bowed tendons," usually career-ending injuries, according to McEwan. And besides, McEwan noted, Helen Brach was experienced in horses, not liable to be hoodwinked into buying bad prospects. The heiress subsequently bought several successful racehorses.
The following year McEwan helped value a racehorse destroyed due to veterinary malpractice. The resulting judgment of $950,000 was the largest ever involving a racehorse.
McEwan founded the Encinitas-based Expert Equine Research in 1989. She has since been hired by horse owners or retained by insurance companies as far away as New Zealand and Puerto Rico.
Even though she's "just starting" in the business of equine appraising, McEwan is aware of its greed-driven side.
"This business breaks a lot of millionaires," she says. "A race can make a hero of an ordinary man, the trainer, the owner, but it's an addiction. A racehorse costs $2000 a month to keep. I have figures that show only 1 percent of all thoroughbred racehorses earn over $100,000 in their racing lives. Only 4 percent earn over $10,000. Three quarters -- 74 percent -- earn between nothing and $10,000. Take 1975. That year 30,000 foals were born for racing purposes; 30 percent of those have never even run in a race. Of the rest, the annual average earnings were $5000 in 1975, though that average was up to $7000 in 1996."
McEwan says she's discovered the racing industry is in many ways "much worse than we all imagined. We all love the horses. But in the business, some people can lose their integrity. And there's no blue book on horses."
According to Time magazine, in the 1994 investigation of the Helen Brach disappearance/
murder, the long inquiry opened up a Pandora's box: investigators broadened their search to include once-great racehorses that had been "clubbed, electrocuted, and burned alive" so owners could collect insurance money. Alongside Brach's name in the victim list, they added such monikers as "Rub the Lamp," "Belgium Waffle," "Rainman," "Roseau Platiere," and "Empire," legends in the horse world who had been murdered for their replacement money. Apart from Bailey, 23 people were indicted and 19 charged with killing horses for unscrupulous owners.
Which is why McEwan has to be tough. Some owners will tell her, "We need a $30,000 figure," when she comes to appraise their horse. "But I have to do it for the court. No one else. I have to not care what the owners care. Then, during the discovery phase, lawyers on the other side will try to intimidate you. You have to love the adversarial process."
Appraising a horse's value, she says, can be a lot more than names and figures. You've got to know the horse, the genetics, and other circumstances. If it's a racehorse being raised in quarter-horse country, its value diminishes. "At any single moment, a horse can have over a dozen different monetary values: an anticipated value, an income capability value, a collateral loan value, an insurable value, a cost-replacement value, an individual value within a packaged value, a public auction value, a racing value, a syndication value..."
McEwan says sometimes you have to forget all the claims of great bloodlines and go see the horse itself. "A horse [that was progeny of the famous racehorse] Affirmed was for sale. We scurried over to take a look at this horse in a Louisiana two-year-old sale. For a start the pedigree doesn't belong there. Just to get Affirmed blood is highly prized. Most of that blood doesn't leave Kentucky on the breeding end of it or the sales end of it. So what's this horse doing in Louisiana? That was a red flag to begin with. So we went over and looked at this creature, and it was a freak! It was so pathetic. He had these big eyes and this stunted body. I felt so sorry for this horse. He knew that everybody was looking at him. I knew he understood the reaction of the people. The poor pathetic thing was by Affirmed, but that didn't tell you anything about the horse."
If she's not appraising horses for sale, McEwan's sorting through conflicting testimony after a car-horse collision. "Believe me, you don't want to be in a car when a 1000-pound horse crashes through your windscreen," she says. "Horses are like kids. They get naughty. They escape. They end up cantering down roads. They're not like a 200-pound deer. Their sheer weight can crush you."
She came to the business accidentally. In 1983, she met her late husband, Richard, a racehorse trainer from Canada, on a blind date. She had trained and ridden show horses all her life, but not racehorses. "Richard said to me, 'You want to come and learn to train racehorses?' So I did. We trained in Florida, New Orleans, Illinois."
It was when she came to Santa Anita in 1985 that she decided to acquire her rare certification in horse appraising. The first job she landed as an appraiser was an L.A. bankruptcy case. "I did my first site inspection. I went up to the farm and found out the bankruptcy trustee was hiding assets. The mare I was valuing had a foal by her side! I came back to the attorney who hired me and said, 'I bet you didn't know about the foal.' "
McEwan found the case so interesting, she started looking at the legal side of appraising. In 1991 she went to USD and got a paralegal degree.
Her big break came while she was staying with her mom in Florida in early 1995. A production company asked her to do some research for a movie on the Helen Brach murder story. The more she researched, the less she could see why horse trader Richard Bailey had been charged with solicitation of murder and swindling Brach with "worthless" horses.
"I was not finding any motive here, number one. Number two, they kept pointing fingers, saying he sold Helen Brach worthless horses. But when I researched the horses, I [discovered] these weren't worthless horses, they were just three-year-old thoroughbreds that didn't make it. That's not unusual. Remember my pyramid chart: 74 percent of the total running population [of racehorses] wins less than $10,000 over a lifetime. Twenty percent make less than $1000 over a lifetime. Twelve percent never ever win a penny."
Then she was asked if she would talk with the Richard Bailey defense lawyers about her research for the movie. "I made phone calls. 'I have information pertinent to your case,' I told them." They didn't take much notice until she faxed them a single page of information. "It was a pedigree page on one of the horses in the case. Very pertinent information. I got a call back in five minutes!"
A month later, in May 1995, she had a plane ticket to Chicago, all expenses paid. "They had me up there for the trial for three weeks in a $300-a-day hotel room, with a [health] club membership. It was so cool! I assisted the defense attorneys through cross-examination with prosecutors' witnesses. We would meet for dinner almost every night after trial for two- or three-hour sessions preparing [the defense attorneys] for the next day. I was also on the witness stand, providing equine education to the court and trying to show there is no direct correlation between how much you pay for a racehorse and racetrack success."
Even after this experience, McEwan wasn't convinced law and horses was the way she should go. But a New Zealand case that paid her $30,000 for 60 days' work convinced her. "God was knocking on my door," she says, "trying to send me a message."
This time she heeded it. Since then, she's implemented a "very aggressive marketing program" aimed at banks and insurance companies and doesn't expect any shortage of contracts. "It's a huge business," she says. "The horse industry produced $25 billion in goods and services in 1996. Nearly $2 billion in taxes. That's as much as the motion picture industry." She says horseracing can involve as many as a million people, from owners to jockeys to stall cleaners. The showhorse industry involves another 3.5 million people. Total economic impact, she figures, is over $112 billion.
And where you've got money, you've got disputes.
But all that legal know-how and racehorse genealogical data is nothing, she says, if you don't have a feel for the horses themselves. "I love horses," she says. "I started riding at three. I've had 28 years in the showhorse world. I can think like a horse."
She tells the story of Ghost Runner. "He was a gray horse. Real cute. His knee was so sore after a race in Louisiana, he just lay down. For five days. He wouldn't get up to eat or drink. My husband said, 'Leave him alone. He'll get up. He's got to get up on his own.' I was, like, forget it! I went down there and for hours I lay in the stall next to his head. He just needed somebody to care about him. I talked to him. I petted his head. Finally I had to go do some work. As I left, I turned around, and Ghost Runner got up. He had lost his will to live, and I talked him back into getting up. I'll never forget that. There are a lot of nice stories on the racetrack. Yes, there are bad people, but most people are into it because they love the horses. Me, I love horses and the law. It's perfect."