Cinzano: the story of the Uruguayan horse that mobilized even the FBI

 Almost five decades ago there was a Uruguayan thoroughbred who was surprising for his athletic condition and his winning streaks. His name was Cinzano. Legend has it that he died in 1977 while traveling on a highway in the United States, while being transported by his new owner in a truck along with another horse named Lebon, who had not won for two years at the Maroñas Racecourse in Montevideo, Uruguay.


The life insurance of the Uruguayan horse represented a fortune. And although nobody gave a penny for Lebon, curiously that skinny horse began to win in distance and track competitions for which he was not qualified.

In the meantime, someone was winning a lot by betting little money. All very strange, right? The story, which seems to be taken from a movie script, ended with the intervention of the FBI, which even sent two of its agents to Montevideo.

"Turf was present throughout my life, my father was very fond of racing and my mother had some uncles in Nueva Palmira who owned horses. I remember that when I was a child we lived in Montevideo because my father was a footballer. And on Thursdays, if we could, we would go to the racetrack. But also, when he played on Saturdays, we also went on Sundays", comments Domingo Daniel Torres, author of the book "Cinzano: champion, convict and legend", which has just been published.

The work of this Uruguayan writer is the first documented approximation to a story that, although it seems like fiction, is not. "Before I knew the legend like any fan. But now I obviously have a special affection for the horse, because of everything I discovered during the investigation", he highlights.

The writer notes that this fraud, a shock to the equestrian world, could be discovered thanks to the work of two Uruguayan journalists, Julián Pérez and Daniel Rodríguez Oteiza, who became aware of the maneuver and alerted the United States Jockey Club. This caused the NYRA to begin investigating what happened in that road accident that had had more publicity than usual in the case of the death of an animal. Uruguayan journalists maintained that Lebon was actually Cinzano. And they sent by mail the documentation that supported it. What evidence did they have? The official reviews of both, very different from each other, provided by the Jockey Club of Montevideo.

As the days passed and new information appeared, the journalists' publication in the Uruguayan press gained space in the North American press: on October 25, the Daily News published an article in which it assured that the NYRA investigation was advancing, while they were awaiting the arrival of documents from Uruguay. In that note, the collection of an insurance of US$ 150,000 by Cinzano's owner is mentioned for the first time and it is reported that the dead horse had been cremated. The avalanche had begun and it would not stop. That same day, the NYRA, supported by journalistic information and reviews from the Uruguayan Jockey Club, detonated the bomb by confirming that Lebon was not Lebon.

In the Hall of Fame

Daniel Torres' book began to take shape in 2011 (and was paralyzed for many years), but the story had caught him four years earlier, when by chance he came across the news that a horse named Cinzano had entered the hall of fame of the Virginia Steeplechase Association. Could it be the Uruguayan? An Internet search confirmed the suspicion. And it led him to the story of the thoroughbred told by the American media.

"I more or less knew the local legend, the one that spoke of the mafia, of a veterinarian who worked for them, that it was owned by Telly Savalas (the actor from the TV series Kojak) and of Lebon's murder. When I saw that everything I had learned was a lie and that the story was different, I became a detective, and I began to search on Google, to get into all the free newspaper archives and to put together a file", recalls Torres.

The more I discovered and the more I wrote, the less I understood how the story hadn't been made into a movie yet. "If someone writes a fiction with this argument, they reject it as fanciful," he says.

Legend for horse racing fans

Leonardo Farber, director of the digital equestrian magazine eleTurf, explains that Cinzano was a legend within the local community and the United States. For this reason, he appreciates the fact that a book has been published that provides details of a plot with cinematographic edges.

“For those of us who were already hooked on turf activity almost half a century ago, Cinzano was an excellent track horse within a very outstanding generation that gave, for example, a classic multi-winner in Brazil like Mogambo.
Cinzano was close to being triple crowned in Maroñas, where he later won the Ramírez Grand Prix. Interest from abroad was not unusual in those days, so it was not surprising that a few months later it was sold and exported to the United States, with the veterinarian of another very famous thoroughbred, Secretariat, intervening in the transaction,” says Farber.

The expert journalist on equestrian issues indicates that, at the time, it was striking that Lebon was transported on the same flight where the Uruguayan crack was traveling, a horse whose sports level was not for great things at the local level. “This is where the story becomes a puzzle, which ended up on the FBI table and with the intervention of the American Justice. It deserved to be collected in a book. Daniel Torres has had the virtue of narrating the plot in three chapters in a colloquial, pleasant, seasoned and entertaining way”, says the director of eleTurf.

After a notorious trial in the United States, in which rivers of ink ran, "Cinzy" returned to the tracks under his real name. He accumulated triumphs again, until with the advance of the 1980s he lost his shine, although he remained the star of the State of Virginia, where his presence doubled the turnout of fans who shouted "We love you, Cinzano!", while the chestnut furrowed the tracks. In total, he won thirty of the forty-two races he ran, as if to support the concept that every jockey who rode him at the Virginia Circuit used to say: "He is the best horse I have ever raced."

After his retirement, he had an open country retirement. He commanded the fox hunts carried out by his last owners, the husband and wife Randy Rouse and Michele O'Brien, until 1999, when at the age of 26, his enormous heart said enough.

Trial in the United States

On November 1, 1977, the news of the "change" of the Uruguayan horses left the turf pages and moved to the police pages. It even shared space with the trial of the infamous David Berkowitz, who cold-bloodedly murdered six people and injured seven others.

Shortly after, it was officially confirmed that two other Argentine horses, Chirico and Sundoro, imported by the same trader implicated in the lawsuit, had also been used for a change of identity. The trial on the Cinzano case was very mediatic for its time. Meanwhile, the poor horse was "prisoner" for several months without being able to do any kind of activity.

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