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Whiteley, Vasquez Sue Disney Over Ruffian Movie

Trainer Frank Whiteley Jr., jockey Jacinto Vasquez, and Thoroughbred Legends LLC have filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against The Walt Disney Company and its subsidiaries, ABC and ESPN, over “Ruffian,” a television movie that is scheduled to air Saturday, June 9, on ABC.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, takes issue with the filmmakers portraying their Ruffian film as a true story of the events surrounding her breakdown and subsequent death during and after a match race with Foolish Pleasure July 6, 1975.

"The claims of the lawsuit are without merit," ESPN said in a statement.

According to attorney A. Lee Parks, who filed the suit, ESPN approached Whiteley and Vasquez, Ruffian’s trainer and regular jockey, respectively, several years ago to obtain the rights to use their stories in the film. Negotiations were unsuccessful.

“They wanted to use their names and depict them, but gave them no control over the content,” said Parks. “Nobody with a reputation would sign away their life story with no input. So ESPN, rather than folding, just found another way to tell the story, and that was by using Bill Nack to write a book inserting himself into the story as one of the players. The conversations depicted in the film between Mr. Whiteley and Mr. Nack never happened, according to Mr. Whiteley. He didn’t sit around his barn chatting with reporters.”

The lawsuit contends that Whiteley did not speak to Nack for more than a year prior to the match race, and had no conversations with him after the event.

“Mr. Whiteley does not want to be portrayed as someone who sat around his barn casually discussing medical and racing issues with an obscure reporter,” said Parks. Nack, a seven-time Eclipse Award-winning author, was Turf writer for New York Newsday and a contributor to the Thoroughbred Record during Ruffian's career. His biography of Secretariat was also published in 1975.

“What we have asked them to do is put a disclaimer on the movie saying it is a fictionalized version based on true events, and that the depictions of Mr. Whiteley and Mr. Vasquez should not be considered as being approved by them,” said Parks. “You see those disclaimers all the time, and that would be fine. We’re big boys. They are public figures. People can make movies about these things if they don’t present it as a true story.”

Parks said that as of June 5, no agreement had been reached, and that a hearing would be scheduled June 6 or 7. In addition, the lawsuit claims that Thoroughbred Legends LLC holds the trademark to the Ruffian name in books, television, and film. (Thoroughbred Legends LLC is not affiliated with the book imprint of the same name published by Eclipse Press, a division of Blood-Horse Publications.)

“The courts have said you can use a clear disclaimer if it’s a public event with public figures, and that resolves the issue,” said Parks. “We’re willing to resolve it that way. But they have to pay a fair licensing fee. We’re not saying they can’t do it; we’re saying if they go ahead, they have to pay a reasonable customary licensing fee to use our trademark, which depends on the number of times it will be shown, the extent of a DVD release, whether it goes international, and other factors related to the entertainment reach of Walt Disney.”

ESPN plans to re-air the film the week of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in late October.