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Angel Usategui owns a videotape of the good days. He keeps it in a cabinet in his Kendall ranch house, in a Florida room just off the foyer. He likes to play the tape for visitors, to show them the pageantry and grace of paso fino horses while -- as he is wont to do -- he describes his central role in the breed's growing U.S. popularity.
"C'mere, I want you to sit down for a minute," he'll say, motioning to a coffee-color leather couch that faces a television set. Blue show ribbons are arrayed on the walls behind the couch, alongside framed photos of Angel with Plebeyo, a legendary stallion he once cared for. Over a nearby wet bar hangs an oil painting of Dona Inesita, Usategui's favorite mare. A wooden horsehead centerpiece rests on the glass dinner table. In the kitchen, horse magnets cling to the refrigerator.
Usategui starts the tape, and the screen fills with images of the Spectrum paso fino show, held each spring at the state fairgrounds in Tampa. Proud horses march briskly around a dirt ring. Veins ripple across their wide necks as they prance in perfectly synchronized steps. Flashbulbs blaze. Trainers in black tuxedos and black Stetson hats grip their horses' reins, keeping their mounts focused.
The tape is from 1995 -- from back when Angel was still a senior show judge and his wife Esther was still president of the local paso fino association and still running the Spectrum show. There she is in a flowing evening gown, curtsying before the packed bleachers, soaking up the rich applause.
"I have been with paso finos my whole life," Angel says as the screen fades to snow. He stops the tape and pushes the eject button. "I exhibited at the first paso fino show ever held in the U.S., in 1967. I have been a senior judge at the National show three times. I initiated the largest artificial-insemination program in the United States. I was founding president of the International Paso Fino Association. No one can deny that I know what I am doing."
The 65-year-old Havana native began his equestrian education at age seven, at Club Hipico Nacional, a top Cuban horse academy. By his teens he'd learned how to post on hunter-jumpers and how to neck-rein an Arabian. One day when he was in his early twenties, as he was warily guiding an Arabian down the face of a steep hill, a stable boy passed him on a paso fino, using the horse's extraordinary control to reach the base three times faster than Usategui could. He has been with paso finos ever since.
From the beginning he showed the instincts of a top breeder. "Back then people would carry their milk to market in leather pouches hung on the sides of paso fino horses, which were also for sale," he recalls. "I would go to the pouches and I would open them up. If there was foam on top, then I didn't want the mare: It proves to me that the ride is not smooth. If I'd open a container and there was no foam, then I would buy the horse."
He replaces the video in its cabinet, next to some 2000 other tapes from shows he has judged or attended: Spectrum 1994; the 1995 international championship in Ponce, Puerto Rico; and so on. Shelves of videos line one wall of the Florida room; hundreds more are stacked in Esther's study. Perusing the tapes keeps his judging skills sharp, he says. How do the other judges' calls stand up to scrutiny? Would he make the same call? If he was the judge, did he make the right call?
"I have never found evidence that horses performed radically differently from how I judged at a show," he asserts, sounding not so much cocky as matter-of-fact. "I don't say I'm always right -- we are humans, we make mistakes. But I make the decision as best I can at that very moment, on that day."
The simple label on one cassette, "1995 national show, Perry, Georgia," belies the magnitude of its contents. The annual Grand National Championship Show is the paso fino Super Bowl, the competition in which U.S. champions are crowned. Usategui was one of three judges invited to the Perry show, held five months after Spectrum. It was the third time he'd been asked to work the National, a testament to his stature in the paso fino community. "He has always been a very respected judge," states Terry Kirchman, a breeder based in Belle Glade. "Angel is very consistent in his placement [of the horses]. That's a very good trait in a judge. People know what he is looking for."
The judging of horse shows, like the judging of figure skating or boxing, is a somewhat subjective discipline. At the National, Usategui's job was to give his expert opinion about which horses were the nation's best in their respective classes. He also had to make those calls in an arena throbbing with ego and partisan passion. Livelihoods and pride are at stake at the National, and judges must be prepared for scrutiny -- and for sour grapes.