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.

Macdonald looks so much like Angel Usategui that they are sometimes mistaken for one another. Both have white hair, jowls, and pale skin that's usually burnt a shade of scarlet. Both also love their horses: In 1993 Macdonald moved his business from Connecticut to Tampa in part to be closer to his showplace horse ranch in Ocala. Where the men differ is in the wallet. Usategui breeds horses for a living, while Macdonald owns one of the largest chemical distributing firms in the Americas, with annual revenues exceeding $200 million.

So clearly superior were his horse and 222 that while the judges had no trouble winnowing the field to seven finalists, they asked that the top two be sent out for a workoff, or second evaluation, before finalizing their cards. To the crowd's delight, Anfitrion moved faster in the workoff. But judge Nicanor Miranda would later say that the horse tended to cross in the front, that its hindquarters kicked out sideways, and that it was off-gait at times, a serious flaw. Usategui noted the same shortcomings, as well as the fact that 222 was virtually faultless for a young horse still in training, losing points only for swishing his tail a few times before prancing over the sounding board. Usategui and Miranda handed in their cards, as did the third judge, Miami dentist Jose Laracuente.

The results were tabulated at the judges' podium in the ring. When the top two places had been determined, the inferior horses were ushered out on cue, their trainers clutching yellow, pink, or silver ribbons. Only Anfitrion and 222 remained.

Fans in the bleachers buzzed in anticipation of the final call. Paso Beat editor de Peralta Faust was there, and recalls that supporters of 222, on one side of the arena, cheered his prospects, while those who backed Anfitrion crowded the other side of the ring, shouting madly. The announcer picked up his microphone and declared that reserve champion -- second place -- went to ... Anfitrion.

Horse-show etiquette called for Anfitrion's rider to pick up his red ribbon and trophy, take a pass across the board, and leave the ring to the champion horse. But Jaime Suarez, Anfitrion's trainer, refused to follow protocol. As boos and taunts of "assassin" rained down from Anfitrion's partisan supporters, Suarez snubbed his ribbon, instead pulling his mount back to the rail and commencing a defiant victory lap. When he finally left the ring after grudgingly picking up his prizes, he was seen throwing the trophy and the red sash to the ground and stomping on them. "He exhibited what I would call very bad sportsmanship," recalls Rosanne Gmuer, a Central Florida breeder and judge who wrote a one-page letter to the PFHA protesting Suarez's behavior.

Later, spectators would find a homemade sign affixed to Anfitrion's stable declaring the colt "#1 by the People."

As the crowd debated the final vote, Usategui left the ring to get lunch, which awaited him and the other judges in a skybox overlooking the arena. The route to the elevator required him to walk a path between the VIP tables and the stands. Miranda and another show official walked beside him. As they approached a stairwell, Usategui recalls, John Macdonald barreled down from the bleachers. "Angel, you are a cabron!" he shouted, hurling the Spanish equivalent of "You bastard!" "This is the last time you are going to fuck me! This time I am going to get you!"

American Horse Show Association rules state that no one is allowed to approach a judge before or after a competition or to make a remark that "casts aspersions on the character or integrity of the judge." After Macdonald confronted Usategui (the two had to be physically separated), an AHSA official advised Usategui to file a complaint. The judge agreed, scribbling out a narrative of the incident and adding the names of Miranda and the other show official as witnesses. A hastily assembled hearing committee addressed the grievance the following night. The outcome: Macdonald was warned not to behave that way toward Usategui again.

Usategui felt the censure was too kind. "He should have been suspended and fined for insulting me. That's a serious offense," he says today. He also disagreed with the way the hearing was conducted: He hadn't been called before the panel, and neither were the two witnesses. He filed a second complaint with the AHSA and was granted a second hearing, to be convened at a later date.

Macdonald entertained his own ideas about a hearing -- on ethics charges against Usategui. After the show, he sent a letter to all 6000 members of the Paso Fino Horse Association, requesting that Usategui's senior judging status be revoked. "Wherever there is a hint of impropriety on the part of a judge against riders or breeders, and wherever undue rewards are granted in the show ring," he wrote, "it has been Mr. Usategui inevitably at its core."

He followed up by filing a complaint with the PFHA. Macdonald made no specific mention of the debacle in Perry, but rather he alleged that at various times Usategui had violated four association rules regarding judges' conduct, as well as the group's general standards of integrity. "[Usategui] has taken his position as Senior Judge for personal gain," Macdonald stated, "by placing owners and breeders in the posture that if they do not cooperate with him, either by buying horses from his stable or stables of his friends, then their horses will never have an opportunity to be on equal footing when it comes to competing in front of [him]." Macdonald demanded that Usategui be "removed for life" as a PFHA judge.

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