By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
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.
"The only people who like a judge are the blue ribbon winners," Usategui warns. "Keep that always in mind. The other guy who's not first place will blast you."
"To better understand the appeal of paso finos, compare them to cars," suggests Jose Luis Amador, the Fort Lauderdale-based owner of seventeen-year-old Capuchino, perhaps the greatest paso fino stallion of all time. "Any other horse is like driving a Volkswagen with no air-conditioning. Riding a paso fino is like getting into a Cadillac with power everything. You wouldn't want to get back into the Volkswagen."
Some 500 years ago, the Islamic rulers of Spain mixed the sturdy Andalusian and the Spanish Barb with the smooth-riding (and now extinct) Spanish Jennet. The combination yielded a regal animal with intelligence, athleticism, and a natural four-beat gait that carries a rider without a trace of the bounce found in other horses. Most important, the horse's unique characteristics could be passed from one generation to the next. The new breed came to be known as los caballos de paso fino: the horses with the fine step.
Christopher Columbus introduced pasos to the New World on his second trip to Santo Domingo; his horses provided the foundation stock for the arriving conquistadors. "They were bred to conquer the world," imparts Sherry de Peralta Faust, editor of Paso Beat, an online monthly magazine. "They wanted a horse with the stamina to go long distances and that was comfortable to ride. That's basically the same horse here today."
Pasos thrived in Latin America and the Caribbean. Cubans discovered the horses were vigorous enough to work a full day in the cane fields. Colombians came to worship the paso's proud carriage and brio -- a combination of energy and spirit. Wild paso finos run free among the scrub brush on Vieques, an island in Puerto Rico (where they are the national horse). It was from Puerto Rico, in fact, that paso finos finally made their way to the United States: American servicemen stationed in San Juan during World War II discovered the breed and began importing it back home.
Despite the late start, paso fino enthusiasm in the United States is growing, particularly in South Florida. Membership in the national Paso Fino Horse Association (based upstate, in Plant City) has doubled in the past four years, to approximately 6000. Of those, more than 600 live in the region that includes Miami and Fort Lauderdale, home to some of the very best horses in the world. The paso fino world championship is slated to be held in Miami in 1999.
"Florida is the trunk of the tree," Jose Luis Amador offers. "The paso fino breed branches out across the country into the Carolinas, California, Texas, and elsewhere, but it is strongest here. Especially here in South Florida."
Paso finos are as common as mailboxes in rural Broward; in Dade they prance the vast grassy fields west of the turnpike. The Usategui ranch sits in the somewhat less wide-open spaces of West Kendall: Years ago a thin strip of land south of Kendall Drive and east of the turnpike was zoned for agriculture. The Usateguis purchased property there in 1980, before the Town & Country Mall arose, and before the infestation of strip shopping centers. Nearly two decades later their neighborhood persists as a relatively hidden haven of horse farms and nurseries.
Fifteen stables, painted dark green and white and clustered around a dusty training ring, constitute Finca La Habanera De A-USA, the Usateguis' two-acre farm. Although Usategui worked for fifteen years as a finance manager for a Ford dealership, horse training and trading has been his sole occupation for the past decade. Day after day he marches his horses around the ring clockwise and counterclockwise, perfecting the animals' natural four-four gait. Most of his paso finos are worth $10,000 to $15,000, though the asking price for his best mares exceeds $200,000. He sells ten or twelve horses a year, always replacing them with cheaper, untrained horses.
A paso fino competition is held somewhere in Florida virtually every weekend. Horses vie for honors in a variety of classes, broken down according to the sex and age of the horse, the age of the rider, and the trainer's professional status. Most shows are administered by the Paso Fino Horse Association; the more important shows -- among them Spectrum and the National -- are also overseen by the American Horse Show Association, an umbrella group based in New York City that governs all breeds. The AHSA's mandate is to enforce a stringent code of rules, including random drug tests. (There's a precedent for this measure: Several breeders say that in Colombia, where paso breeding is a national pastime, show horses are commonly treated with steroids to pump up their physiques in the ring. Not so in the U.S.) Owing largely to AHSA involvement, the U.S. Grand National Championship Show is a true test of a horse's ability; many breeders consider it the most prestigious competition in the world.
There is a direct correlation between the value of a horse and the number of national championships it has won. Not only does the horse's asking price skyrocket with a national title, but the breeding fees also rise. A stallion's stud fee, for instance, can increase by 30 to 60 percent with a championship. To breed with the great Capuchino costs $3500. Thanks to artificial insemination, he can be -- and usually is -- "harvested" six days a week.
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.
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.
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."
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."
In February of this year, Usategui filed a lawsuit in Dade Circuit Court, alleging defamation, conspiracy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The defendants include John Macdonald and his chemical company, Jose Luis Amador, and Howard Brody. Usategui seeks damages in excess of $100,000.
Bernard Weksler, his current attorney, also sent a letter to Jorge Amaro, a former president of the national Paso Fino Horse Association, asking that Amaro "cease and desist forthwith from making any more defamatory and slanderous remarks about Mr. Usategui." "We have heard from eight or nine people who say that Amaro is spreading unfounded rumors about my client," Weksler explains, "that he's disreputable, that he's unethical, that his vote is for sale."
Amaro promptly sued both Usategui and the attorney, alleging civil extortion, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy. Although Amaro lives in Miami, the suit was filed by Macdonald's Tampa-based lawyer.
"The guy is a vindictive person," Macdonald says of Usategui. "He's suing seven or eight people and now he's being countersued. He's going to be spending the rest of his life in court." (Amaro declines to comment about the lawsuit.)
Usategui says he feels compelled to go to court, not out of vindictiveness, but in order to reclaim his reputation. "I call it like it is," he declares. "I could have been more political [at the National], but you know what? I want to go home and be able to go to sleep. The problem that Mr. Macdonald has is he has never been able to buy me. And nobody has been able to buy me. That's why they hate me so much, because I call it the way things are -- as I see it."
Sometimes, after he's done feeding his horses and cleaning their stalls, Usategui will pop the videotape of the 1995 Grand National Championship Show into his VCR. As he sits on the couch in the Florida room replaying the Perry competition, his thumb attacks the remote while his eyes view and review the pivotal moment of the exhibition. "Look!" he grumbles when a certain buckskin appears on the screen. "Anfitrion enters the gait off-step. That is simply not allowed! Every time I watch this tape it gets worse."
Afterward he might reach for another, newer tape from his collection. This one recounts the 1996 National, held in Memphis, Tennessee. Fast-forwarding impatiently, he'll reach the Classic Fino competition: a rematch between Anfitrion and 222.
Battling now in the adult class, the two horses are again responsive and flashy. Three completely different judges spend more than twenty minutes evaluating the two pasos, again isolating them for a head-to-head workoff. And in the end, no matter how many times Angel Usategui replays the tape, the result is the same.
222 wins the championship. Anfitrion comes in second.