By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Usategui filed a counter-complaint alleging intimidation and harassment. The disputes came before the PFHA on February 16, 1996.
The conference room at the Plant City Chamber of Commerce, where the hearing was held, was set up as if for a trial. Five representatives of the PFHA's eight-member hearing committee -- all breeders and judges themselves -- sat behind a long table. Most were from Florida, though C.J. Marcello, who presided over the proceedings, had flown in from Texas. Behind a second table, facing the panel, sat the Usateguis, Macdonald, and their respective attorneys. The lawyers rose in turn and gave their opening statements. One by one, witnesses were examined and cross-examined, as a handful of spectators watched from the back of the room.
In preparation for the hearing, Macdonald and his two lawyers had submitted to the panel sworn statements from a dozen people active in paso fino exhibiting. All called for Usategui's dismissal as a National-level senior judge. The statements formed the thrust of Macdonald's case, though several of the witnesses also attended the hearing to testify in person.
Boca Raton breeder Howard Brody was one of those who testified. He alleged that in order to compete successfully at the National, an exhibitor must purchase a horse from Usategui. He added that prior to the 1995 National show, in a conversation not overheard by witnesses, Usategui had bragged to him that his two fellow judges, Laracuente and Miranda, were "under his control." Brody claimed to have later discussed this development with Laracuente: "Mr. Laracuente, basically, said to me that it's unfortunate that Usategui was going to be a National judge this year, and that we all basically knew ... what type of person Usategui was," Brody alleged.
A brother of Macdonald's trainer had submitted a sworn statement alleging that Usategui's vote was for sale. Jose Luis Amador, the owner of Capuchino, came forward to second that accusation in person. "You make a deal with Usategui, you get a ribbon?" one of Macdonald's attorneys asked Amador. "You got a ribbon," Amador responded.
In her sworn statement, an Ocala horse owner asserted that she "personally saw" Usategui's son riding several horses that were competing in the 1995 National, which she believed to be a direct violation of the rules. Another woman, a horse-show judge named Aleidita Davis, didn't supply a sworn statement but submitted a letter claiming that Usategui had tried to influence her before she judged a 1995 show at Miami's Tropical Park. "Within ten minutes of my arrival on the show grounds I ran into Mr. Usategui in the announcer's stand," she wrote. "He approached me and said, 'My son, Tati, is riding the performance colt class. I need for you to give this colt first place because yesterday they gave him second and he deserved better than that.'"
Macdonald himself stepped forward to allege that Usategui could be bought.
"If I were to buy horses from him, then he in turn would give me better placement in the show ring," said the breeder. Because he refused to go along, Macdonald added, "[Usategui] consistently pinned our horses lower than the other judges pinned them."
Most scandalously, Macdonald claimed that before the placement of the horses in the pivotal three-year-old class at Perry "Mr. Usategui took Mr. Miranda, the other judge, out of the ring. At that meeting he was overheard by two witnesses telling Mr. Miranda that there would be a lot of booing, that the decision would be unpopular, but not to worry about it because the exhibitors would forget about it by the end of the year."
Usategui had seen all the statements beforehand, and he came to the hearing prepared. For each accusation leveled against him, he presented a sworn statement from someone who could refute it.
To Brody's charge that Laracuente had told him it was "unfortunate" Usategui would be a judge at the 1995 National, Usategui presented a sworn statement from Laracuente himself: "I don't remember saying that and I doubt that I ever said those words. I feel very strongly I didn't say it."
In response to the farm owner who saw Usategui's son riding horses during the National, Usategui pointed out that the four horses his son had ridden were finished competing at the time, and thus there was no rule violation -- a fact that could easily have been checked.
To Davis's claim that he had asked her to award his son a first-place ribbon at a local show, Usategui presented a sworn statement from Adolfo G. Torres, a horse dentist who was the announcer at that Tropical Park show and who was in the booth when Usategui allegedly pressured Davis. Torres stated that upon meeting Davis, Usategui had said only, "We are ready to begin the show." And when Davis asked Usategui if he was showing a horse in the competition, Torres asserted, he had said no. "So she say, 'Okay. By the way, my father and my mother, they're coming today and they are pleased to say hello to you,'" Torres recounted in his statement. "That was all."
As for Macdonald, Usategui brought a sworn statement from Nicanor Miranda, who asserted that he had not been influenced by Usategui at the 1995 National, and while he had left the ring as Macdonald had claimed, it wasn't to discuss the placement of the horses with Usategui; it was to go to the restroom -- and it happened after he had turned in his card to the show steward. (Macdonald was unable to produce the two witnesses who he claimed had overheard the alleged conversation.) Miranda also stated that Macdonald had approached him a few hours after the run-in with Usategui and asked him why he had placed Anfitrion second. At that time, Miranda stated, he had given Macdonald an honest answer: "We have to go for details when it's a very close competition, and that was my decision."