Grand Theft Horse


Richie’s Picks: GRAND THEFT HORSE by G. Neri and Corban Wilkin, ill, Lee & Low, September 2018, 240p., ISBN: 978-1-62014-855-6

“And the next thing you know your son is playing for money in a pinched-back suit.

And list’nin to some big out of town jasper, hearin’ him tell about horse-race gambin’.

Not a wholesome trottin’ race, no! But a race where they set down right on the horse!

Like to see some stuck-up jockey boy settin’ on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil?

Well, I should say.”

-- Meredith Wilson, “Ya Got Trouble” (The Music Man, 1957)

I periodically receive review copies of instruction manual-style books for children and teens that seek to motivate young, budding activists. For the most part, they leave me pretty cold. How often do you get jazzed from reading an instruction manual?

But give me a true story that reveals a heartbreaking problem or unjust situation, and I’m often moved to do something. That’s why, having read GRAND THEFT HORSE, I’ve just finished writing to my state senator. Next in the works is a letter to my governor.

“I’ve been around horses my whole life. Horses were everything to me. Nothing else mattered.

But in the past fourteen years of working in the horse racing world, I’ve seen things that pushed me over the edge. Terrible things.”

GRAND THEFT HORSE is the story, both captivating and horrific, of Gail Ruffu, as told in graphic novel format by her cousin G. Neri and illustrator Corban Wilkin. Gail, who has loved horses since she was a little girl, grew up to become a licensed horse trainer, and developed an ability to work with dangerous horses. She then found a spirited yet amazing horse to buy and train, Urgent Envoy. Unfortunately, she ended up with business partners who were only interested in reaping immediate returns on their investment and not at all interested in the welfare of the animal. When Urgent Envoy became injured, the business partners insisted on disregarding veterinarian instructions and, instead, having the horse doped up so that he would run until he dropped.

Seeing no alternative, Gail snuck the horse out of the training facility and, hid him away in a distant neighborhood boarding stable. This led to her trainer’s license being taken away and the threat of jail unless she returned the horse to be dealt with as the business partners wished.

GRAND THEFT HORSE is the triumphant graphic biography of a horse lover turned activist. Told from Gail’s point of view, it begins with the “theft” of the horse and moves between her young years of yearning for a horse, time in Europe when she learned formal equestrian skills, and her life as a professional.

After hiding the horse from her partners and losing her trainer’s license, Gail spent years living hand-to-mouth, scraping up the money to keep her beloved horse housed and fed, while training herself to digest legal journals in order to fight for the life of her beloved steed. Eventually, Gail found a lawyer who believed in her quest and, together they won Gail’s case in California Supreme Court.

It’s a breathtaking, top-shelf read for the horse-crazy kids in your family or in your library. But the book also serves as a stunning exposé regarding today’s horse racing business. The money wagered on horse races makes it a business that is closely regulated by the states. And that means that associated issues of animal cruelty revealed here should be state issues, too.

Here in California, the members of the California Horse Racing Board are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the State Senate. And California is a place where we believe in leading the country toward change for the better. That’s why I’m looking to educate state representatives, and encourage them to halt the practices that lead to so many horse injuries and deaths. As Gail writes in the book’s Afterword:

“In American horse racing, twenty-four racehorses (on average) die every week on racetracks. About 3,600 horses died racing or training inside state-regulated race track enclosures over the three years leading up to 2012. Thousands more died in slaughterhouses due to injuries caused by reckless trainers and breeders. The practices of inbreeding and line breeding (selective mating within a horse’s extended family) are both widespread. Because of these practices, the modern racehorse’s bones mature more slowly and are therefore more fragile than those of the raw-boned racehorses of yesteryear. Even so, these horses often race as early as the age of two. The results are heartbreaking. One example of the nationwide decline in horse health: yearly starts for young racehorses have dropped from twelve (on average) in 1960 to fewer than seven (on average) in 2013.”

I love reading about and being inspired by women who take up a fight for what’s right. Gail Ruffu’s story had me recalling the grit of Diane Wilson in Molly Bang’s NOBODY PARTICULAR: ONE WOMAN’S FIGHT TO SAVE THE BAYS (2000).

I grew up with a pair of crazy horse lovers in my life: my sister and her best friend. They both still own and ride horses. Don’t tell them, but I’ve just ordered them gift copies of this book.

240 pages      978-1-62014-855-6             Ages 12-17   (Grades 6 and up)

Recommended by:  Richie Partington, MLIS, California  USA

See more of Richie's Picks


Gail Ruffu was a rookie trainer known for her unconventional methods and ability to handle dangerous horses. When she became part owner of an untamed thoroughbred named Urgent Envoy, everything changed. After Urgent Envoy showed real promise, her co-owners forced Gail to speed up training and race him too early, causing the horse to develop a hairline shin fracture. Refusing to drug the horse to keep it running, Gail lost Urgent Envoy to her partners, who pushed the horse even harder. One more race would kill him. When nobody heeded her warnings, Gail had to act.

So on Christmas Eve, she rescued her own horse. A modern-day outlaw, Gail evaded private investigators and refused to give the horse up. Blacklisted by the racing world, she learned the law at night to take on a powerful L.A. attorney determined to crush her in court. As she stood up for the humane treatment of racehorses, she also faced down the system that caused their demise.

In this gorgeous graphic biography, G. Neri, author of the acclaimed Yummy and Ghetto Cowboy, retells the life of his cousin Gail, a pioneer who challenged the horse racing world for the sake of one extraordinary horse. With illustrations by brilliant newcomer Corban Wilkin, it is a must-read for horse lovers everywhere.--from the publisher

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