By Alex Tresniowski
Updated August 04, 2003 12:00 PM

Something was happening to the horses—something terrible. First, Wild Eyed and Wicked, perhaps the finest saddlebred show horse in the world, came up lame with what “I figured was a leg virus,” says Dena Lopez, 37, the animal’s highly regarded trainer. Then four other horses at Lopez’s Double D Ranch in Versailles, Ky., developed the same symptoms: severe swelling in their left forelegs that didn’t respond to treatment. The horses got sicker, and veterinarians were summoned. One of them, says Lopez, told her, “You need to call police.”

Wild Eyed and Wicked, twice the winner of his sport’s Triple Crown, lost his mysterious battle and was put down July 17. Two more horses were euthanatized by July 18. Even more shocking was the apparent cause of death: poison, injected into their legs by person or persons unknown. The killings have stunned the close-knit saddlebred show-horse community and triggered an investigation by Kentucky state police. “I have heard of some bad stuff, but never anything like this,” says Jane Burkemper, 66, owner of the promising Kiss Me, one of the euthanatized horses. “Whoever did this must be the sickest people in the world.”

The attacks apparently took place late on June 28 in such a stealthy fashion that Saloman Gallegos, the horses’ trusted groom who sleeps near the stalls, never heard a thing. Lopez and her husband, David, 44, who train some 70 horses at the 40-acre spread and live on the property, were out late that night. The ranch’s front gate was unlocked and its security system was not working. Even so, the job of restraining and injecting a spirited horse like Wild Eyed and Wicked and posting a lookout “would take three or four men,” believes neighboring horse farmer Janeen Oliver. The 11-year-old Wicked, valued at an estimated $1 million, was due to compete at next month’s World’s Championship in Louisville, Ky., where he would be judged on the precision of his gait in several walking styles. “He was a once-in-a-lifetime horse, the kind everyone dreams of,” says Dena Lopez, who had trained him since 1997, most recently for owners Joe and Sally Jackson. “If you gave me $10 million to get another horse of that caliber, I couldn’t find one.”

The question now sweeping the saddlebred world is: Who would hurt the horses? Police would not comment on their investigation, but Lopez and others discount the notion that a rival trainer could be behind the killings. While the competition between high-stepping show horses can be fierce, “this is a family-oriented sport,” insists Bridget Parker, owner of a 50-acre horse farm near the Double D. “The trainers compete as hard as they can in the show ring and go out to dinner together when it’s over.”

Others aren’t so sure. “I really do believe they wanted to hurt Dena,” says her husband, David. “So they took some of the most precious things from her.” Adds Burkemper: “They wanted to ruin Dena as a trainer so she wouldn’t have these five top horses to take to the championships.” So far police have not speculated on the possibility that the killings could have been an inside job or part of an insurance scam.

Dena and David Lopez, low-key California natives who have been married for 17 years, have a 13-year-old daughter, Alyssa, and are “an all-American family, Ward and June Cleaver,” says their friend Parker. Highly regarded as patient and gentle trainers, they called in Ric Redden, one of the world’s premier equine foot veterinarians, after their horses developed gruesome lesions on their legs. Redden tried several treatments, including maggots to eat away dead tissue, to no avail. But the decay was so severe—and the horses in such pain—he finally suggested they be euthanatized. “You could not put something on the skin that would cause a problem like this,” says Redden. “It had to be injected.”

The vet is “cautiously optimistic” about Cat’s Don’t Dance, one of the two poisoned horses who survived; Sassational, who was given less poison, is, Redden says, “out of the woods.” Wild Eyed and Wicked, so gifted in all five show-horse gaits that he swept the sport’s top three championships in 2000 and 2001, was buried in a quiet spot on the ranch, beneath a patch of four-leaf clovers. Alyssa Lopez, who helped out around the stables, loved feeding the horse green spearmint candies. “Don’t give him a red one,” says her mother, “he’d spit it out at you.”

As for Dena Lopez, she is devastated, say her friends, by the loss of a horse she lovingly nurtured into a champion. “We were a team,” Lopez says. “His stall will remain empty.”

Alex Tresniowski

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