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Review: G. Neri's 'Grand Theft Horse' a thrilling true tale of a woman on a mission

Illustrations by Corban Wilkin Pages from G. Neri\u2019s graphic biography of Gail Ruffu, \u201CGrand Theft Horse\u201D
Published Oct. 5, 2018

Many young girls go through the horse-crazy phase. (I know I did.) Most of them get over it.

Not Gail Ruffu. The real-life main character of Grand Theft Horse, a new graphic biography for middle-grade readers, gave up almost everything to rescue a racehorse she trained and part-owned when its other owners wanted to put the horse in mortal peril. It was a quest that dominated years of her life, landing her in court more than once — and almost landing her in jail.

Her inspiring story, and that of the racehorse Urgent Envoy, are the subjects of G. Neri's latest book. Neri, who lives in Temple Terrace, has published 10 books for young readers, from the Coretta Scott King Honor-winning Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty to Tru & Nelle and Tru & Nelle: A Christmas Tale, both based on the childhood friendship of authors Truman Capote and Harper Lee. Neri's 2011 book, Ghetto Cowboy (another true tale about people who love horses), is in development as a TV series, with Idris Elba signed to star.

On his website, Neri writes that Ruffu is his cousin. He didn't know her well growing up, but when they met again as adults she told him, "I'm a wanted woman" and proceeded to recount the story that became Grand Theft Horse.

Ruffu was one of 13 children; their father's military career kept them on the move all over the world. As a kid, she watched TV shows like The Lone Ranger less for the cowboys and Indians than for the horses they rode. Every Christmas and birthday, she asked for a horse of her own. When the family landed in Texas for a few years, she finally got her wish, temporarily.

As a young adult she studied horsemanship and stable management in Europe, learning methods of training and caring for racehorses that were more humane than the profit-driven practices of U.S. horse racing.

Back in this country, she became licensed as a trainer, which led to her discovery of a horse who had little training but powerful potential. She couldn't afford to buy Urgent Envoy on her own, so she entered into a partnership with a lawyer. He quickly manipulated the deal so that she became a minority owner with several partners, but she was so happy to have the horse she didn't mind.

Ruffu deployed the humane training methods she preferred, which included limiting workouts and never medicating the horse. But her partners pressed to race him before she thought he was ready. The disagreements escalated; eventually the other owners took possession of the horse. Later, Ruffu discovered that they planned to race him despite a fractured leg — pretty much a death sentence — so on Christmas Eve of 2004, she stole the horse.

For years, she kept him hidden while she wrangled through the court system with the other owners. She lost her trainer's license, she lived in her van, she nearly lost hope. But she never abandoned Urgent Envoy, and along the way she found allies that led to the book's happy ending.

Neri does a sterling job of telling a complex story — even its byzantine legal aspects — in a way that younger readers will understand, and he keeps it racing along with a skillfully constructed plot. The pen-and-ink graphics by illustrator Corban Wilkin (Breaker's End) are muscular and inviting, giving both Ruffu and her horse a bit of superhero glow.

Ruffu's own story may end happily, but Grand Theft Horse takes on a larger cause as well. As Ruffu herself writes in the 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." Drugging horses so they can race with injuries is so pervasive that racing forms list what medications each horse has been given (or at least the legal ones).

Imagine such stats and practices occurring openly in a sport played by human beings.

Ruffu doesn't want to outlaw horse racing — the book makes clear how much she loves the sport as well as its athletes. But she believes it could be made safer and more humane, if only the people involved were less money mad and more horse crazy.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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