Five days after winning the 1977 Fresno Futurity, Town Policy, who would go on to be named champion 2-year-old that year, was kidnapped from trainer Blane Schvaneveldt's barn and mysteriously sold in Mexico. Found by jockeys from Los Alamitos Race Course five months later and 150 pounds lighter, a dramatic rescue operation involving machine-gun-carrying Mexican policemen helped bring the horse back to the United States.
One of the men involved in this Hollywood story was Bernie Pica, who helped transport Town Policy safely back to Schvaneveldt's barn after the horse had crossed the United States border. Less than three months after his return, Town Policy captured the 1978 Los Alamitos Derby, the most competitive Quarter Horse race for 3 year olds, by two and a half lengths.
"Blane said the only people he would trust with the horse were his wife and me," Pica recalled this past week. "There ought to be a book written about it."
The fact that Pica would be part of one of Quarter Horse racing's most colorful episodes is quite remarkable for someone who only got into the sport by chance.
After moving to Southern California from Boston in 1951, Pica attended Anaheim High School. That year marked the first pari-mutuel meeting held at Los Alamitos Race Course and Pica's first exposure to Quarter Horse racing.
"I rode the bus with a lot of eventual trainers and sons of trainers - growing up listening to their stories," Pica said. "Then I started sneaking to the racetrack."
In 1968, Pica decided to become an owner and purchased what he called "a cheap horse." As an owner Pica's specialty has been turning "cheap horses" into winners. In 1972, Pica claimed Moolah Diamond for $4,000. Although he had not won in 32 previous races, the 7-year-old gelding won first out for Pica and trainer Earl Holmes, a former schoolmate. Moolah Diamond eventually went on to capture allowance races and place in stakes races.
More recently, Pica claimed Two Steppin Alibi for $2,500 in 1997, and the next year the gelding won the $64,800, 870-yard Marathon National at Los Alamitos with jockey Carlos Bautista aboard for trainer Rodney Hart.
"When I saw the horse run at 350 yards, he was just begging for more distance," Pica said about Two Steppin Alibi. "I've done pretty well. I just kind of try to do my homework. I look for a horse with a trainer that might not have as much experience and then look for a trainer that can turn the horse around."
When he first became an owner, Pica had a job as a carpenter. Then in 1973, Pica started working as a horse transporter, which is how he became involved in Town Policy's rescue.
Pica, 69, currently owns four horses, including Governor's Cup Futurity finalist Good Jazz. Pica's son Tony, 40, now partners with his father as owner of the Dan Francisco-trained Good Jazz, who has finished third in three maiden races.
"We went to the (Los Alamitos Equine Sale) without any intent of buying a horse, and my son Tony told his dad he wanted a futurity horse," Pica's wife, Barbara, said. "On the first day Bernie bid on a couple horses but didn't buy one. On the second day Tony said, 'we're not leaving without buying a horse.'"
A bargain purchase for $13,000, the Picas have high hopes for Good Jazz. Nearly 40 years after becoming an owner, Bernie Pica continues to search for overlooked horses.
"You never know," he said. "We might find something at the Los Alamitos Sale in October that we want to buy."