Fifth Third Bank faces a possible contempt order in California on May 10 over an allegation that it violated a court-ordered agreement by asking Keeneland to withhold any purse money Great Hunter might earn in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). The financial institution made the request to the track due to its claim of an interest in the colt.
Attorney Dan Baren, who represents J. Paul Reddam, owner of Great Hunter, sought the contempt hearing in Orange County Superior Court Friday, just one day before the running of the Blue Grass. He contends that the bank violated conditions of a March 29 order not to interfere with ownership of the horse, including participation in the race.
Judge Derrick W. Hunt, who signed the original order, agreed to set the matter for argument on May 10, five days after Great Hunter is expected to run in the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
Baren said Keeneland was recently sent a letter by Fifth Third Bank that asks the track to refrain from distributing any purse winnings Great Hunter might earn in the race.
Fifth Third Bank claims it has an interest in the horse because the colt purportedly was part of collateral used on since-defaulted loans extended to the horse's former owner, Ilona Whetstone, and her husband, L. Eric Whetstone. Reddam privately purchased Great Hunter for $550,000 last June.
“The order prevents them from doing anything that interferes with Reddam’s ownership of the horse, and certainly one of the benefits of owning a horse is collecting the purse money,” said Baren. “Here they (Fifth Third Bank) are sending a letter to the track, where they have ATMs, and where they sponsor a race, and are putting pressure on the track to do something that is clearly wrong.
“(The order) specifically bars (the bank) from taking any action that would interfere with Reddam’s ownership of the horse,” he continued. “I will let you decide whether claiming entitlement of purse winnings interferes with ownership of the horse. I think it is pretty clear.”
Keeneland spokesman Jim Williams confirmed that the track had received a letter from Fifth Third Bank, and that officials immediately contacted Reddam about it, but declined to comment further. Lexington attorney William “Buddy” Bishop, who represents Keeneland in legal matters, also said he could not comment.
Fifth Third Bank has been tight-lipped about the situation ever since news of its claimed interest in Great Hunter surfaced in early March.
“We are not commenting on this because it is a matter of pending litigation,” said Debra DeCourcy, director of corporate communications at Fifth Third Bank. She added that if there is a court hearing in California April 13, the bank would still have no comment on its outcome.
What is believed to be a copy of the letter sent to Keeneland on behalf of Fifth Third Bank was obtained by The Blood-Horse. Selected portions of it reads:
“The horse is collateral for certain loans made by Fifth Third Bank to L. Eric and Ilona Whetstone ... While the bank does not contest Mr. Reddam's ownership of Great Hunter, there is obviously a dispute as to whether the bank or Mr. Reddam will be entitled to any winnings that Great Hunter might earn in the Bluegrass (sic) Stakes. Under the circumstances, we respectfully request that Keeneland not disburse any winnings earned by Great Hunter."
The letter references a lawsuit Reddam filed March 23 in California against Fifth Third Bank that in part asks the court to declare his ownership to be free and clear of any outside interests.
Baren said Reddam was “devastated” by the recent turn of developments.
“Here he is about ready to get on a plane to go back (to Kentucky), and now he has to deal with this,” Baren said. “He wants the focus to be on his horse, and this is taking all the joy out of this, and completely away from him.”
Baren said settlement negotiations were recently cut off by Fifth Third Bank.
“We thought we were very generous and we were waiting for them to respond to our last offer, and then we got an e-mail from their counsel saying, ‘We reject your offer, and any of our previous offers are off the table,’ and there haven’t been any settlement discussions in the last two weeks,” he said.
Baren declined to discuss any particulars of the settlement offers, saying the information is confidential.
Correspondent Jack Shinar contributed to this article.
-View Order to Show Cause (PDF)