Horse Attitudes

Angel Usategui used to judge paso fino competitions at the highest level. An ethics scandal put an end to that and left him fighting to regain his good name.

Still, anyone involved with the breed will tell you that much more than money rides on a national championship.

"For a horse owner, it is the prestige," explains Esther Usategui. "Coming in first is the greatest pleasure you can have. Whether it be thoroughbreds, hunter-jumpers, or paso finos, it's not about how much money you make, it is about being first. About winning, about having the best horse. It's an honor."

Carlton Smith, a Long Island-based breeder, takes a somewhat different tack: "If you cut to the absolute line, horse breeding is nothing but a colossal ego trip. That's all it is. We gratify ourselves and inflate our egos through the accomplishments of something we won.

"And when something doesn't go the way we want it to," adds Smith, "we take it as a personal affront."

When things went the way of one local horse, the affront seems to have been taken quite personally. Profeta de Besilu, a horse belonging to Miamian Ben Leon, won the 1993 Grand National Championship Show in Asheville, North Carolina. Angel Usategui judged the show, along with two other men. Two months after the victory, on the inside cover of the official magazine of the Paso Fino Horse Association, a full-page, full-color ad featured a picture of Leon and Usategui at a party, laughing. "Congratulations to Mr. Ben Leon, Jr., and Mr. Angel Usategui for their win at the U.S. Nationals and the World Cup," the ad copy proclaimed.

Usategui had nothing to do with the horse, of course; he was only the judge. But the ad implied that he was in league with the owner.

The following issue of the magazine contained a full-page correction, on the same inside cover. The ad had been "submitted in poor taste by a person utilizing a false name and address," the magazine confessed, and further clarified that "there are no business ties between Mr. Leon and Mr. Usategui."

As far as Usategui was concerned, that put an end to the matter. He never found out who placed the ad, but he left for the 1995 Grand National Championship Show with his reputation intact.

On September 21, 1995, Angel Usategui stood in a corner of the oval show ring in Perry, Georgia. Two other judges occupied their own stations. Each scouted for well-rounded rumps, and for heads carried high on the neck. Was there balance between the powerful hind legs and the delicate front? Was the gait in perfect four-four harmony: left rear, left fore, right rear, right fore? Were the eyes widely spaced and large, with no white showing around the edges?

Usategui marked his card as the horses and trainers classes followed the official script: Start with a slow circle around the ring in fino time, demonstrating balance and class with a steady unbroken rhythm of the hooves. Then a relaxed, medium-speed corto that segues into a fast largo. At each speed the horse must maintain the rigid one-two-three-four rhythm. Tuxedoed riders must sit rigidly still on their mounts, only their heads gently bobbing with each fine step.

In the center of the Perry ring, as at every paso fino show, lay a strip of plywood twelve horse-lengths long. The sounding board, as it is called, amplifies the clack and stomp of a forward march. Every horse must cross the board once or twice, with the judges listening for cadence and quickness of footfall. Each misstep thunders through the arena; each perfectly even pass mesmerizes the crowd. "You don't get just a four-beat gait. What you hear is a kettle drum," explains Paso Beat editor de Peralta Faust. It's the same physics as a drum, and it produces a wondrous, beautiful sound. It's incredible to listen to."

After crossing the sounding board, the horses line up facing the audience and each judge determines the finishing order (first through sixth place, plus honorable mention) and turns in his scores. The results are tabulated by computer, and horses not among the top seven finalists are excused. Horses that survive the cut will receive ribbons in ascending order of their greatness: Honorable mention goes first; the champion collects its ornate blue ribbon last.

One of the more anticipated matchups of the six dozen classes at the 1995 National was Classic Fino Three-Year-Old Colts and Geldings. The classic fino is the breed's top class, contested among professional trainers and featuring horses of extraordinary power and poise. Classic fino stallions are five years old or older. This encounter among three-year-olds was a showcase for future superstars.

Fifteen horses began to work through the routine. Trainers' heads vibrated as their mounts glided through the different speeds. Cheers rang from VIP tables lining the ring as each magnificent paso crossed the sounding board. Silently, Usategui and the other judges assessed the animals, taking notes on scratch pads.

Two colts clearly stood apart from the field: One was 222, a big gray horse with good confirmation, size, and gait; the other was Anfitrion del Conde, a buckskin. 222 belongs to Ernie Sanz, a second-generation breeder from Miami. Anfitrion belongs to John Macdonald, a relative parvenu. In less than a decade, he has established himself as one of the dominant exhibitors of paso finos, having discovered the breed when spinal surgery forced him to find a horse that would go easy on his back. Already he has acquired two national champion pasos and a stableful of contenders.

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