San Diego You've seen it on Hard Copy, read about it in the paper. Now, how about the truth on the millionairess, the parasite, and the million-dollar horse she claims was murdered, South Pacific?
Start with the basics: In Valley Center's rich farmland, a champion jumping stallion dies of one of the world's rarest diseases. Its distraught multimillionairess owner is convinced that her enemies injected a parasite to murder her horse. She puts out a $10,000 reward for information. She suspects it may be horse dealers hurt by the success of her bloodline, or perhaps developers fighting her campaign for water and wildland preservation in Orange County. She hires an ex-FBI private investigator. She establishes an 800-number telephone hotline. Even a mysterious expert from the U.S. military arrives to inspect her ranch and requests to be "kept informed."
Many say the champion jumper South Pacific was the love of Joan Irvine Smith's life. He was certainly the pride of her show-jumper stables. But she lavished care on him for good reason: the stallion made her reputation in the horse world.
Smith, great-granddaughter of James Irvine, the Scottish-Irish immigrant who created Orange County's 120,000-acre Irvine Ranch, is heiress to $350 million of the Irvine fortune. She owns three horse farms -- all known as "The Oaks" -- in Virginia, San Juan Capistrano, and Valley Center.
It was to the Oaks Indian Hill Ranch in Valley Center that Mrs. Smith retired South Pacific for breeding two years ago. The 43-acre spread, just beyond Bates Nut Farm, looks like a movie set, with horses nibbling at lush green pastures inside miles of wooden corrals surrounding a big red barn. More than a hundred horses have been retired here or were born here, the children of South Pacific.
Javier Moncada opens the door to stall number 28 in the barn, South Pacific's. Moncada's entire responsibility was South Pacific. Tears pool in his green eyes as he speaks. "He was my buddy for two years. He had great heart. He was the best horse I ever met."
We look down at the stall where the great horse was put to sleep April 15 at the age of 16. Black plastic covers white lime, spread to disinfect the stall. "I held his head for a day," says Moncada. "In the end, when he was blind and in pain, he would hit the door and neigh. The only thing that helped was when I put his forehead against the wall. He'd stand pressing that and pressing it..."
Vets discovered shortly before the great Holsteiner stallion was euthanized that tiny worms were eating out South Pacific's brain, eyes, and kidneys. The worm, Halicephalobus deletrix, kills horses and humans without mercy and without exception. Its life cycle remains a mystery to science. Apart from the 13 horses it has killed in the U.S. since 1985, it has also caused the death of two people on the East Coast and one Canadian boy. It is so rare, Mrs. Smith is convinced it was deliberately injected into her "flagship horse" by someone who knew the location of his unmarked stall.
Moncada shows some of South Pacific's 65 offspring in their stalls. Canaletto, Champagne, Esmeraldo, Cheer -- Holsteiners all. They may be stallions, but each is as loving and trusting as a child. "You see how easy they are to approach," says Moncada. "It would not have been difficult for someone with a needle. Till this happened we didn't even have locks on the stall doors."
To Moncada and Smith, the tragedy -- and the main cause of suspicion -- is that it happened to South Pacific. The seal-brown stallion was born in Germany in 1982 of royal lineage, combining the two legendary Grand Prix jumping bloodlines of Silbersee and Cor de la Brèyere. The Germans, it seems, have long held an edge on Holsteiner jumpers. South Pacific was brought to the U.S., where he made his name as a superb competitor.
Smith acquired him five years later and brought him to San Juan Capistrano. His success as a jumper was unquestioned, but it has been his later career, as a supplier of semen to mares, that gave him value beyond money. Smith's ambition was to beat the Germans at their own game, to breed horses that produced the perfect combination of "size, mind, and muscle."
Perhaps she was succeeding too well.
"When I entered South Pacific's stall on the morning of April 15," writes Smith in a tribute to her beloved stallion, "he was lying on the shavings with his head elevated. I called his name and he raised his head slightly and nickered softly in response. I told him we must say good-bye for now, but I knew we would meet again someday. His great heart never faltered until he was euthanized at 9:30 that morning. I remained beside him until his life drifted away."
* * *
I meet Joan Irvine Smith an hour north of Valley Center, at her home and second horse farm outside San Juan Capistrano. She's seeing off the Hard Copy television crew inquiring about the $10,000 reward she's offering for information about South Pacific's death.
Smith is a solid and commanding 65-year-old woman, smartly dressed in salmon-pink blazer and cream slacks. The salt and pepper of her straight, shoulder-length hair is highlighted by a gold chain around her neck joined by a gold belt buckle. Her slacks belt sports a brass horseshoe buckle.
Ocean I, a beautiful and successful son of South Pacific, comes out of his stall for exercise. Smith grabs some horse cookies from a bag and nuzzles them into Ocean I's mouth one at a time. Then she's off in her Range Rover with the breezy assurance of the rich.
"Talk with Bob," she says.
Bob McNeal is the private investigator she hired to find South Pacific's murderer. McNeal recently retired after 20 years as a special agent for the FBI. We sit down under the green canopy of fruitless mulberry trees.
I ask McNeal why somebody would kill South Pacific.