Massacre victim’s racehorse rescued in Calif

Return of the King was once owned by massacre victim James Ortega of Covina, Calif. The racehorse was rescued June 14 from an auction house. Photo by Auction Horse Rescue

Return of the King was once owned by massacre victim James Ortega of Covina, Calif. The racehorse was rescued June 14 from an auction house. Photo by Auction Horse Rescue

A racehorse once belonging to a California family who was massacred in 2008, was plucked this month from a California auction house, his life saved through the glorious teamwork of a rescue organization, social media and his original breeder.

Return of the King, a 2002 Kentucky bred gelding who earned $175,000 in 33 starts, stood gingerly on a badly swollen hind leg at Mike’s Auction House June 14 when he was spotted by Megan Gaynes, a three-year veteran of Auction Horses Rescue.

“He was in significant pain, standing on a hugely swollen leg,” Gaynes says. “My friend who accompanied me grabbed his halter to lead him, and it was clear he was really lame on his front feet as well. So I turned to the auction staff and I asked if I could please buy him right there, rather than make him run through the auction.”

The auction workers agreed.

She paid $300 for him on the spot, and transported the injured animal to the West Coast Equine Hospital in Somis, Calif.

That’s when word started to get out that King had once been owned and loved by James Ortega of Covina, Calif., a man well known at Santa Anita, and where they each had stood together, victorious in the winner’s circle.

Return of the King
Sire: Wolf Power
Dam: Family Felon
Foal date: May 3, 2002
Earnings: $175,000
Tragically however, on Christmas Eve 2008, Ortega and nine members of his extended family was massacred by his sister’s ex-husband, Bruce Jeffrey Pardo. According to many published news accounts, Pardo arrived at a family Christmas party dressed as Santa Claus and opened fire, later taking his own life.

The story of the crime, which made national news at the time, went national once again this month as social media channels urgently shared King’s story, and that of the family so shockingly cut down. Horsemen and advocates alike now pulled together to ensure that the horse, at least, would live through his own ordeal.

“It was such a tragedy. A month before the family died, they all came together for a race that King won at Santa Anita. And somewhere there’s a picture of them all standing together with King in the winner’s circle,” Gaynes says. “Friends and family of the Ortega family have since come onto our Facebook page and told us how grateful they are that we saved King. And I have no doubt that if the family hadn’t been murdered, they would have kept King, and given him a good retirement.”

King recovers at the West Coast Equine Hospital. Photo by Auction Horse Rescue

King recovers at the West Coast Equine Hospital. Photo by Auction Horse Rescue

And now King will get that retirement in Kentucky where he was born.

James Keogh of Grovendale Sales, who is King’s breeder, readily agreed to take back the horse and provide him with a lifetime retirement. “I’m just doing what’s right,” Keogh says, adding that he is optimistic that King’s lameness can be helped, if not corrected, with good farrier care.

King suffers from significant arthritis in his front, right ankle and moderate-to-severe pedal osteitis in his left, front coffin bone, according to veterinary findings. His hind leg, which gave him so much trouble, fortunately had only a superficial wound.

Keogh plans to medically treat those conditions as soon as the horse makes the trip from California to his Kentucky farm. He anticipates using a rubber compression mold to take the compaction away, and utilizing physical therapy tools, such as vibrating plates, to increase blood flow and promote healing to the foot.

As he awaits the horse’s arrival, Keogh notes that well-known advocate Jen Roytz, the former head of marketing for Three Chimneys Farm, was integral in efforts to help King. “She recognized me as the breeder and called me to ask if I could help,” he says. “I was happy to.”

Keogh expects King will make a fine pasture ornament, or possibly a babysitter for yearlings.

Regardless of what he does, he will come home to Kentucky where good care, and a safe stall await.♦

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42 responses to “Massacre victim’s racehorse rescued in Calif”

  1. Kim

    Tina….get a grip. Are u doing the accounting for ahr? You have no idea what ahr is or has done to get king home…so unless you are footing the bill…move on.

  2. Tina

    So has he been returned to the breeder? Are there any updates? I have seen there were some Hollywood stars that donated so he can be reunited with his breeder. AHR is still taking donations for his hauling. Which I find odd after 6 months

  3. Angela Freda

    While AHR may have been able to pay for the costs incurred in saving ROTK, what you have to remember is that those funds need to be replenished so they can save the next horse[s]. It takes time and plenty of funds per horse to get them out of that bad place and rehab’d such that an appropriate home can be found.

    Alas there are always more that need help getting out of a bad spot, and most do not have owners or breeders who will step up and help.

  4. Laura Britvec

    Thanks, Susan. It was a horrible, surreal experience. We didn’t know the Ortegas, but it was deeply disturbing to think THAT happened *here*. Not some other part of the country, some other city, some other PART of the city, even–HERE. We listened in horror to the news radio on the hourlong drive as the body count grew. Later, we had the surreal experience of watching national news correspondents walking down a street in our neighborhood in special news reports.

    What was worse was in the days and weeks following, our neighborhood was barraged by news vans, helicopters, and worst of all, looky-loos. A friend of mine who lived on the corner of that street had people (as in, more than one) *knock on the door to ask directions.* She and her husband said they reached a point they just wanted to stand on the corner and direct traffic toward the street. I meanwhile wanted to put freakin’ spike strips down.

    I didn’t know about their connection to Return Of The King until he ran at SA. And, like many I think, it didn’t even occur to me that his future may be as dark as it became. A surviving brother (James) had inherited him and this was the first time he ran under his name. When I saw ROTK on AHR’s Facebook page and the story connected, I instantly remembered him (his name *had* seemed familiar) and I started tagging locals and friends. My husband teaches where a lot of the Ortega kids went to school, and a teacher friend had many of the kids. She in turn tagged the kids in the post so they could see. I’m still nagging our local paper to run a story (they just ran a “Five Years Later” story this past Christmas on the massacre)–supposedly, one is in the works. Hope so!

    I’m sorry to hear about your father. Curious coincidence…my own father died two months later; February 10. It’s a surreal experience in and of itself, losing a parent, and I know that even though it’s been 5 years, it still lingers. My sympathies.

    Ugh–I need to go hug my kids and my horses! Yeesh, what a time.

  5. Laura Britvec

    I live in the Ortega’s neighborhood, about 10 houses down from their street. My next door neighbors heard the gunshots, which we did not hear as we’d gone to bed. But the massive number of emergency vehicles and flashing lights woke us up, and the next morning, there was a thick acrid, greasy smell in the air. Pardo not only shot this family execution-style, he had fashioned a homemade flamethrower and torched everything to keep those not shot from escaping. The fire was huge and intense, but some kids escaped jumping from second story windows and retreating to neighbor’s homes. First thing that monster did was shoot the 9yro girl who answered the door in the face. (Remarkably, she lived.) Thirteen children were orphaned that night.

    The house has long since been bulldozed, but the scarred lot remains. I pass it often as it’s part of one of my regular dog walking routes. A simply privacy fence is in place, but you can still see the emptied pool and slide through the screen. Every Christmas, a neighbors sets out the light up reindeer the Ortegas always had out, some of the few salvaged items from the home. Sometimes candles and other memorial items line the privacy fence in the driveway.

    Return of the King won for the Ortegas just two weeks after the massacre. I remember it making all the papers, and how Santa Anita ran a fundraiser for the family a month later. It’s horrific the horse came to this place, but it’s beautiful that he has been rescued and retirement awaits him. He is the living reminder of the darkest parts of human nature, both human on human and human on animal, yet he also is the embodiment of courage, strength, endurance, and hope.

  6. Janet Schultz

    So how the heck did he end up at the auctionk ? Thank GODhe was spotted, he obviously was badly injured and still heading through the gate onto the floor. What part of this story is missing? Is there a gap, or an I tent? Sorry to pop the balloon, but aside from the horse being rescued and the covers jerked off what looked like a bad ending, there is so e culpability here that has been swept u deer the rug!

  7. Amanda Downard

    Kennethe good question

  8. Kenneth

    Why are donations being asked for this horse when Auction Horse Rescue said that the horse was already, medically/etc, paid for in full? Being they are still pending a charity with the IRS, I would be leery of my monies being funded to them. Is there another organization that you can refer me to that is a tax regulated one? Thank you, and thank you for your story!

    1. Jane H

      AHR is very reputable. Some organizations are 501(3)(C) pending but I believe you can ask them for a tax id number. They (AHR) have been doing this work for years now and joining together with other horse rescues to combine funds to get some of the auction horses to safety, and get them treated. Many of the horses require teeth floating, vaccines, worming, medical work-ups, refeeding, special farrier care, and sometimes shipping to a final safe home. About a year ago AHR rescued a Chincoteague pony that was once a national halter champion. It took a lot of money but it was eventually shipped to the Chincoteague pony sanctuary in Maryland.

  9. Viktoria KS

    BTW, GOOD JOB Auction Horse Rescue! Would love to know where I can see follow up pictures on a racehorse we rescued together named Blackman Bay. He had a fractured knee, as I recall. Thanks much.

  10. Alyssa

    Colmel, there is a lady at Los Alamitos who runs a re-homing organization called Equine Racers, she may be able to help you find the horse as she knows all the trainers at LA. Her website is and her name is Sarah, she has email and phone number on her site.

    1. Colmel

      To all of you WONDERFUL people! Sarah at EquineRacers not only KNOWS Runaway Wildcat, she’s very good friends with his trainer. They work together to get ALL the trainer’s horses rehomed when they retire. Now, I just have to hope that “Cat” doesn’t get claimed away. Such a relief! It wouldn’t have been possible without all of you getting on board to help. THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart!

  11. Viktoria KS

    Comel & Susan…Heed Debra’s advice to MOVE QUICKLY. I hate to say it but Los Al trainers dump more horses to bad places than should ever be allowed. I wish they would stop running those cheap races at Los Al or AT LEAST REQUIRE a bond to save a horse that CLEARLY needs retiring.

  12. Eveline
    1. Colmel

      Thank you! It appears that Runaway Wildcat has his own webpage with FirstHome Thoroughbreds.

      He just won his last $2,500 claiming race so his winnings continue to increase which makes it harder to get owners to part with the horse. Of course, at that level, if there was a “second chance” organization willing to take a look at him (he still looks gorgeous on the webpage), they could pick up one really fine fellow for the price of a claim. I see that he was once trained by Doug O’Neill who is known for giving horses new jobs (Lava Man is a terrific example.)

  13. Rebecca Highlander

    What a story, this should be a movie! “Return of the King”. Maybe Disney would take it on and use some of the proceeds to help w/ racehorse welfare and rescue.

  14. Laureen

    It is shameful that he was at an auction house in the shape he was in, where did he come from, who had him and dumped him at the auction??

  15. Heidi Carpenter

    I would love a follow-up story to this. If only King can tell everyone where he’s been during the past few years. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Canter Michigan

    Cynthia and Susan.. there is a beautiful retirement ranch in Missouri that will take care of your horse in retirement or in case of your death. It’s Out2Pasture. Robin Hurst. She’s great, has a beautiful area, loves and takes care of all the horses and Senior horses in retirement.

  17. Michelle Y.

    I remember hearing about that massacre. I lived near Covina 10 years prior to that. It was senseless that so many lost their lives because of a loser who couldn’t handle his jealousy and anger. It is sad to think what King went through the last five years after his owner was murdered. I am so happy Auction Horses Rescue saved him…they are a great group and if I remember correctly, they frequent auctions all around the L.A. area. It is sad King ended up at an auction house but it is wonderful that his original breeder quickly stepped up to offer him his well-deserved forever home. And kudos to the auction workers for taking pity on him and allowing Megan to buy him immediately.

  18. SAS

    Please Susan Salk, follow up on King’s story and encourage all who have made his return to Kentucky possible to do the same.
    Also, to Colmel who is looking for the horse that ran in Michigan: You can call the Jockey Club to find out who owns the horse now.

  19. Cynthia M.

    What a great story. It is something that is always in the back of my mind, “what will happen to my mare if I die?” Of course, they died unexpectedly. We need more ranches that you can pay a fee to and they will retire your horse for you if your horse outlives you.

  20. nay

    Too sad to think, this horse would have had the same fate.So glad he has a second chance.

  21. Colmel

    I am so glad to see this story. Another horse saved by caring people. Perhaps someone in this group can point me in the right direction regarding a really nice horse who should be retired and given a second job. I’ve been following Runaway Wildcat ever since I saw him run in Michigan at the ill-fated Pinnacle Racecourse. He’s a Michigan-bred, 6-year-old gelding who has fallen through the ranks into the $2,500 claimer level after winning more than $200,000. He WAS a gorgeous fellow with lots of scope and is inbred to Secretariat and Seattle Slew. He’s “running” at Los Alamitos. I’m in Michigan and would love to see this handsome boy find an occupation where he can come back to near the top of his form.

    1. debra

      If you know the name of the trainer for Runaway Wildcat you can call Los Alamitos and get that trainer’s phone number.(DRF shows the trainer in the entries). That way you can talk to the trainer, who should be able to get the owner into contact with you. That’s how I brought a favorite mare of mine back home from the downward spiralling ranks of thoroughbreds at the “old” Los Al. Saved her from an easy, and inevitable, trip over the border to a Mexican slaughterhouse.

      Please do this quickly. I would grieve to know of your horse going over the border!

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