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."
Calder Race Course
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."
Hale received no payment for the horses, Mark says, and had no idea they might end up at a slaughterhouse. "First of all, my dad wouldn't think about giving away a horse for that purpose," Mark says. "And second of all, retired thoroughbred horses are ideal for riding with children."
In a statement given to police in mid-January, Ortega claimed the horses were "very thin" when he had them delivered to Manuel Coto's ranch. He expected the farmer would nurse them back to health, according to a police source with knowledge of the investigation. A stable hand named Ariel, who transported the horses to Coto's ranch "as a favor" to Ortega, according to police, refused to comment for this story, simply saying, "That's Jorge's problem."
Ortega's legal troubles date back nearly two decades. In June 1992, the Cuban-born exile was arrested for soliciting a prostitute and carrying a concealed firearm. Both charges were eventually dropped, and the case file, as is common practice, was destroyed.
The next April saw him involved in a backcountry throwdown on a practice race track in Miami Gardens. After a manager ordered Ortega to leave the property, he "produced a nickel-plated .38 revolver," pointed it at the manager's stomach, and declared, "I'm fed up; you're dead," according to a police report. When the manager's sister attempted to close the ranch gate on Ortega, the report states, the pony boy got into his pickup and "attempted to run her over." Ortega was cuffed and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to one year of probation.
In the new millennium, Ortega's alleged crimes took a turn for the kinky. In 2000, he was again charged with a prostitution-related offense, for which he paid a fine of $136. And on an afternoon in May 2005, he was on Hobe Beach in Key Biscayne when he "initiated contact" with a female stranger, climbed into the front seat of his 2000 GMC pickup, and began openly masturbating, according a police report. The caper had a flaw: The woman was an off-duty Miami-Dade Police officer. She arrested him on the spot and had his truck impounded, but the indecent exposure charge was never prosecuted.
More recently, accusations of horse abuse have dogged Ortega. On June 18, 2008, a Calder Race Course trainer — who asked to remain anonymous — lodged a formal complaint with the DBPR. The complainant claimed that six days earlier, Ortega had continued to work a horse that "exhibited clear signs of being in serious distress... His eyes were glazed, and it was apparent the pony was nearing collapse. It was difficult to even look at this suffering animal."
Within hours, the horse, named Ugly, was dead.
A female jockey confirms the scene and claims she offered to buy the animal "on the spot" in order to save its life. "The horse was going through a heatstroke; it was quite obvious," recalls the jockey, who asked that her name not be used. "You have no right to own a fucking turtle if you can't tell an animal like that needs medical attention."
On December 29, 2008, another Calder trainer, Theresa Jane Turner, filed her own complaint with the DBPR, claiming Ortega was keeping his horses in "appalling" condition. "When every horse a person has, has its ribs, backbone, and pelvis showing as well as a shaggy dull coat and a lifeless appearance," Turner wrote, "it would seem to indicate a lack of care."
After both complaints, the DBPR conducted inspections of Ortega's animals and stables but found that the "general appearance and condition of the horses was very good and there was no indication the pony horses were being mistreated," explains spokesperson Alexis Antonacci Lambert.
Ortega might dodge a legal bullet once again. The police source says it could be "very difficult" to pin criminal charges on him because prosecutors would have to prove he knew the racehorses were headed to slaughter. But to Richard "Kudo" Couto — founder of the anti-cruelty organization Animal Recovery Mission and perhaps the county's most vocal opponent of illegal slaughter — the proper course of action is obvious: "He needs to be fired from any tracks he's working at, and he needs to have his license revoked."
Calder spokesperson Bob Harnish confirms there's a legal investigation into Ortega's connection to horse slaughter. "The moment we prove that anyone is providing horses to be slaughtered, they will be immediately banned from our facilities," he assures.
Harnish says he hasn't "heard or seen Jorge since the investigation began" and that the pony boy is now working mostly at Hialeah Park and Race Course. A spokesperson there referred New Times' inquiries about Ortega to a general manager, who did not return a phone message.
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To investigator Couto, the problem is far larger than the plight of two horses. "It seems like every illegal slaughterhouse I go to, I find horses with tattoos on their lips," he says.
And Ortega apparently isn't the only Calder trainer dealing retired racehorses to Manuel Coto. In September 2009, Richard Couto rescued Freedom's Flight, a descendant of legendary racer Secretariat, from the farmer's illegal slaughterhouse. According to an Associated Press article, longtime Calder trainer Marian Brill admitted to selling the horse for $500 to a "man whose name she didn't know." Brill refused to comment for this story, citing an "ongoing investigation."
Even with innuendo and rumors flying, Manuel Coto maintains he's still open for business — if Jorge Ortega is. "If he brings me more horses, I'll buy them," the farmer declares. "Why not?"