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Laurie Goedecke immediately recognized Dance Hall Graeme when she saw the picture in the newspaper. The chestnut gelding was emaciated but still standing. Less than two months before, Goedecke, a Calder Race Course assistant trainer, had scrubbed down the vibrant 4-year-old animal after the last race of its career. she had thought it would become a "therapeutic horse" entertaining children at a nearby rescue ranch.
But now Dance Hall Graeme, along with a filly she recognized as another racehorse from Calder, had been shown in a December 21 Miami Herald story about illegal slaughterhouses in Northwest Miami-Dade County. The horses were on a ranch belonging to Manuel Coto, a farmer who openly admits to slaughtering hogs and other farm animals — but not horses, he says — without a license.
On Christmas Day, Goedecke and another Calder trainer, Karla Wolfson, showed up at Coto's ranch, hauling a horse trailer. They demanded the two horses from Coto. Both looked like they hadn't been "fed in weeks," Goedecke says. "When I saw Dance Hall Graeme, I just started crying. He had terrible ulcers on the inside of his lips and a hernia on his belly. Later we found out that his insides were bleeding profusely."
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Beneath the ulcers were tattooed numbers, the mark of the gelding's racing past. Coto, not eager to call the police, gave up the horses without a fight.
Dance Hall Graeme was in extreme pain and had to be euthanized. The filly, named Faith, is recovering at Goedecke's Southwest Ranches stables.
The discovery of racehorses at a slaughterhouse made the nightly news and local newspapers. But what wasn't reported was the identity of the Calder trainer who had arranged for the horses to be sent to the slaughterhouse and who, according to Coto's own admission, had delivered many more over a 15-year relationship.
His name is Jorge Ortega. He's a craggy, rail-thin 64-year-old "pony boy" at Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens. He cares for the stable horses that keep the racers company. Already sporting a criminal record including charges of aggravated assault and indecent exposure, he is now the target of a Miami-Dade Police investigation into whether he knowingly sent horses to slaughter, according to a source within the department.
"Everything I've been told is that Manuel Coto slaughters horses for meat and sells it," the source says. "In my mind, there's no chance Jorge was not aware of that reputation."
This isn't the first time Ortega has been accused of equestrian malfeasance. Since June 2008, fellow Calder workers have filed two complaints with Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) alleging serious abuse of animals, including his once riding an overheated horse to death despite the protests of a trainer and a jockey who witnessed it. They called for Ortega's outrider license to be revoked, but no disciplinary action was taken.
Ortega refused an in-person interview and hung up the phone after a brief denial of guilt. "I have already talked to authorities, and I don't have to tell you anything, sir," he said. "I haven't done anything wrong. I'm not responsible for those horses after they're out of my hands."
Coto, meanwhile, insists he has never slaughtered a horse for human consumption, which is illegal. He kills only "hogs, goats, and chicken," he says. Since 2008, he's been hit with two misdemeanor charges related to his unlicensed slaughter business. "I've been doing this for 18 years," Coto declares angrily. "I try to get all the proper licensing, but now the state won't let me."
Coto readily admits to having procured "too many [horses] to count" from Ortega — but only for resale. "Sometimes I pay him; sometimes he gives them to me free," the farmer says. "We've been friends a long time."
Pressed for information about his horses and customers, the 63-year-old Coto responds glibly: "I sell [them] to people to ride or to slaughter." Asked to confirm what he just said, he backtracks. "I never sell horses to slaughter," Coto says quickly. "I don't even ask people what they want them for. Listen to me, it's not my business why they want them."
Dance Hall Graeme's journey to the slaughterhouse began November 1, 2009, after the Sunday-afternoon race that would be its last. "Dance Hall Graeme was no factor," read the postrace summary, an apt description of the gelding's unimpressive career. The thoroughbred had finished eighth out of nine that Sunday and had spent most of its 15 races near last place, earning a paltry lifetime purse of $1,578.
After the race, Dance Hall Graeme's owner, 74-year-old horse-racing fixture Bobby Hale, decided to retire the gelding. The horse appeared healthy during that night's exercise and bath. "He was a little on the thin side, but his face was bright and his eyes were bright," Goedecke says. "He was bucking and kicking and having a good time."
"Let's find him a good home," she says Hale instructed. Put out to pasture, Dance Hall Graeme could have lived 20 more years.
Hale, who is in deteriorating health, has since returned to his native Jamaica and could not be reached for comment. But his son Mark tells New Times that Jorge Ortega, who often worked for Hale, volunteered to deliver Dance Hall Graeme — along with the filly, a failed racer — to "somebody who had children."