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.

As to the charge that his vote was for sale, Usategui offered sworn statements from ten breeders who felt otherwise.

"They have failed to bring before you a specific allegation of a specific rule violation with specific evidence to show by a preponderance of the evidence that he's guilty of anything," Usategui's attorney, William L. Richey of Miami, argued in his closing statement. "They can't just make the allegation, ladies and gentlemen. They've got to prove their case. And the facts are that most of what they've proved here is hearsay and rumors."

In issuing its findings two weeks later, the PFHA hearing committee did not directly address any of the specific allegations leveled at the hearing by Brody, Amador, Macdonald, and the rest. The officials simply deemed Usategui to have violated two of the association's general rules: He was guilty of not acting in "the best interests of the paso fino horse" and of acting "in a manner deemed improper, unethical, dishonest, unsportsmanlike or intemperate, or prejudicial to the best interests of the association." He was placed on probation for five years and stripped of his senior certified judging status: In other words, though he may still judge any other exhibition, he is no longer permitted to serve as a judge at the National.

Usategui first heard of the verdict from his attorney. He would never learn whether the judgment was unanimous; the committee's vote was secret. "They couldn't find nothing!" he bellows. "They couldn't say I broke this rule because of this or that rule because of that. So I am good to judge any show in the United States besides National. Why? Because they want Macdonald to win the National!"

As he had been when his own grievance was heard back in Perry, Usategui was unhappy with the hearing process. Only five of the eight members of the hearing committee had shown up for the proceedings, and he felt that at least one of the no-shows, a horse breeder from Homestead named Margaret Fahringer, would have been inclined to rule in his favor.

Fahringer, a personal friend of the Usateguis, says she was discouraged from attending. "The attorney of the Paso Fino Horse Association had told me I could not be on that hearing committee," she asserts, explaining that her impartiality was in question. "He called me only the day before and told me that I could sit, but [PFHA president] Rick Meyer and [executive director] C.J. Marcello kind of put pressure on me not to go, in a roundabout way. I finally said to C.J., 'Why don't you tell me not to go?' And he said he couldn't."

With such late notice, Fahringer continues, she opted to stay home in South Dade rather than attend the hearing in Plant City. "It is impossible for me to just leave work and drive all day long just for a hearing," she explains. "Besides, I had already read both sides and knew that nobody can be convicted on hearsay that was in some cases 25 years old. I had no doubt that justice would be served, fool that I was."

PFHA executive director Marcello says there was absolutely no tampering with the committee or the process. "There were some people that were not present, but that was of their own accord," he declares. "There was a quorum."

Adds Marcello: "Mr. Usategui was brought to a hearing in accordance with the rules of our organization. The complaint was heard by a committee established according to rules that were in place well before the hearing. He was represented by counsel. He knew who was going to be on the committee beforehand. Only after the fact did he protest."

One week after the PFHA hearing, and one week before Usategui was notified of his punishment, the American Horse Show Association reheard his charge that Macdonald was guilty of poor sportsmanship. Meeting in West Palm Beach, Usategui, Macdonald, and their lawyers again hashed out the dispute before a panel of judges. Unlike the PFHA hearing, this one focused primarily on Macdonald's behavior. Another difference: the outcome. In a ruling handed down in October 1996, the AHSA panel voted to suspend Macdonald for one month and fine him $4000. Usategui was not sanctioned. Though Macdonald repeated his allegations against Usategui, AHSA committee secretary Marge Kolb noted in the ruling that "[t]he panel members felt that there had not been substantiation of bias."

By the time the AHSA ruling was delivered, though, Usategui had already been dealt another blow. His wife Esther lost a bitterly fought campaign to retain her presidency of the local chapter of the PFHA, and the new board immediately resolved to expel her and Angel from the board of directors, citing rule violations. The Usateguis quit in protest instead. When the national PFHA held its annual convention in Miami last summer, neither attended. Angel Usategui, who normally goes to two or three horse shows every month, did not attend another event for nearly a year.

"We've been telling Angel to come back out, to not stay away," says Terry Kirchman, the breeder from Belle Glade. "The man's a walking encyclopedia of horses. His knowledge is amazing." The dispute, Kirchman acknowledges, has divided the sport. "I have friends on both sides. I've told them that just because you don't like Angel or have a problem with Angel doesn't mean I don't like you. I mean, that's your opinion. You're entitled to it."

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