The scene was an eerie evocation of The Godfather. As French bankruptcy receiver Robert Maze Censier watched in horror, an outraged American horse breeder named Wayne Murty stormed into his Paris office and slammed down a grisly offering: the amputated leg of a thoroughbred racehorse. It was another grotesque episode in the French racing scandal known as I’affaire Murty—a battle over a stable of high-priced thoroughbreds, pitting antagonists too well drawn for fiction. One is a bumptious self-made Oklahoman trying to hold his own in the closed aristocracy of European horse breeders. The other is the preeminent member of that high society—the hugely wealthy playboy Prince Karim, known as the Aga Khan to the 20 million Ismaili Muslims who consider him a descendant of Muhammad.
It began more than a year ago, when Murty paid a distress price of $840,000 for 56 racehorses belonging to bankrupt tycoon Marcel Boussac, one of the premier horse breeders in the world. When he tried to export the Boussac horses to his Kentucky stable, Murty, 43, was told that the horses could not leave the country, and that they were being sold to the Aga Khan instead. “This is the damnedest swindle I’ve ever seen,” Murty exploded—and vowed a fight to the finish, no matter who the competition was. “I want those horses,” he still says. “We bought them fair and square, and I’m not going to quit until I get them.”
Until recently that vow seemed longer on bravado than substance. The receivers of the Boussac estate persuaded the court to annul the Murty deal. At the same time, apparently influenced by the powerful French Jockey Club, the receivers approved the Aga Khan’s offer of $9.3 million for 144 of the Boussac horses—plus $1.3 million for the rest, Murty’s lot. Murty kept insisting that he was the victim of a conspiracy, citing, among other things, the Aga Khan’s timely “donation” of three stallions worth $90,000 to the French National Stud, the state agency that controls export licenses. But Murty had little hard evidence on his side until last month, when the respected French horse broker Antoine de Rose came to his defense. “I was told the Jockey Club wanted the horses to go to one buyer only,” says de Rose, who had been hired to appraise them. “That buyer was the Aga Khan. It is shameful something like this should happen.”
Murty is no one’s patsy. Born in tiny Guymon, Okla., he had his own horse by age 2, jockeyed from age 11, and learned enough as a business major at Oklahoma State to parlay a small family farm (with brothers Duane and Robert) into multimillion-dollar breeding and trading stables in Kentucky, Florida and New York. Trading for Murty Farms keeps Wayne on the wing 10 months every year. Indeed, “I’ve always been well accepted in France,” he adds, “because I come over and spend money left, right and center.”
His clash with the French racing establishment is over style as well as money. Besides the horse-leg incident (it was one of the Boussac mares that had been shot after a training accident), Murty publicly called the highest racing officials liars and toadies for the Aga Khan—and the prince himself a low schemer. “Sheer effrontery,” huffs the Harvard-educated Aga. Agrees Henri Blanc, manager of the National Stud: “The French administration is not accustomed to such rudeness.”
They had best prepare for more. The receivers’ most recent offer to Murty of $788,000 to drop his case is, he says, $500,000 less than what he paid out for the horses and their upkeep—and he’s determined to take his case all the way to the French supreme court. The case could drag on for years—and sympathy for “the crude American,” as he is locally known, is growing even in France. Meanwhile, the struggle has totally disrupted the bachelor horseman’s life—”I kissed my girlfriend six months ago and told her I’d be back in three days,” he laughs. But he is convinced he will win, if only by embarrassing his opponent. “I can afford the cost,” he says, “longer than he can afford the exposure.”