05/06/2009 12:00AM

Equine victims in new life


For my money, there has not been nearly enough outrage in the racing community over the discovery last month that 177 horses owned by Ernie Paragallo - who raced Breeders' Cup winners Artax and Unbridled's Song - were discovered at his upstate New York farm to be malnourished and neglected to the point of abuse.

During the mass media coverage leading up to the Kentucky Derby, the Paragallo scandal was lumped into any number of stories about the travails of Thoroughbred racing. Paragallo got more cover than he deserved from the anniversary of the death of Eight Belles, the ongoing bankruptcy struggles of Magna Entertainment, the game's crackdown on steroids, and the appalling lack of A-list celebrities that could be dragged to Kentucky Derby parties.

None of those issues, however, sinks to the depths of the apparent crimes against his horses. Yes, he was stripped of his right to race in New York, and he was arrested, on 22 counts of animal abuse, for which he is scheduled to appear in court to answer those charges on May 18, two days after the Preakness Stakes is run. But is that enough?

Those of us intrigued by the justice system are anxious to hear Paragallo's defense of the indefensible. Hopefully, he will hang his head, admit his guilt, take full responsibility, and dedicate the rest of his life in abject restitution, closely monitored by both the courts and the Thoroughbred industry. But if he points a single finger at someone else, in trying to explain away the horrors perpetrated in his name at Center Brook Farm, he deserves the harshest possible penalties.

Don't hold your breath. Even in the wake of NFL star Michael Vick's conviction and incarceration for bankrolling dog fights, the chances for Paragallo to do hard time are slim. Look for the case to drag on and on, with Paragallo's attorneys hoping the spotlight fades, until some sort of plea deal can be made that puts the case quietly to bed. There will be a fine, probation, and possibly even a sentence of community service. If that's the best to be hoped for, with the court's permission, here are some suggestions for that service:

* The Augean option, harking back to the tasks of Hercules, would require Paragallo to strip down to his skivvies and work boots and clean the 40 stalls and the dozen pipe rail paddocks at the Old Timey Riding Stable in Bucksnort, Tenn., every day for 18 months, Sundays included, since horses don't know what day of the week it is, but they know what that is they're standing in.

* Or, a year under house arrest as a verbally abused intern at the nearest equine clinic that specializes in major surgeries, whether racetrack or farm related, with duties to include swamping, festering wound care, and round-the-clock post-op vigils. No meals provided. Good luck with that.

* Or, a work-release program at the Viande Richelieu horse slaughter plant in Massueville, Quebec, where Paragallo will be able to roll up his sleeves and appreciate firsthand the work of the true masters of equine abuse.

In the meantime, the victims of neglect who were found at the Paragallo farm are slowly recovering. At least those who were not too far gone. A number of rescue and retirement organizations have stepped up to find care and homes for the brave 177, led by the local Columbia Greene Humane Society, which is staffing the farm with volunteers and has taken direct custody of 67 horses.

Among the organizations involved was Old Friends, the Kentucky-based farm which has served as combination museum and retirement center for Thoroughbreds who enjoyed at least a modicum of notoriety during their racing careers. The happy inmates include Affirmed Success, Kudos, Awad, and champion Sunshine Forever.

Old Friends director Michael Blowen took one look at the roster of Paragallo horses up for merciful adoption and spotted a 5-year-old gelding out of a mare by Fortunate Prospect, a stakes winner on both coasts and successful sire who has resided at Old Friends since 2005. Fortunate Prospect is 28.

"When he got to us, about 10 days ago, we discovered the horse was actually 4, and not a gelding, but a little colt," Blowen said. "But he's a cute little guy, and very affectionate.

"He was not as bad as we expected he might be, but that's not to say we haven't had to be very careful," Blowen went on. "When he got here, all he'd eat were his own droppings, because that's what he was used to. We haven't given him any grain yet, but now he's eating grass really well. He's been wormed, he's put on a little weight, and his coat is starting to show a little color. We got rid of most of the rain rot on him already."

Blowen, in recalling the list of Paragallo horses, could not believe how many of them were sons of Artax, who won an Eclipse Award for Paragallo as champion sprinter of 1999. The little colt adopted by Old Friends is a son of Aristotle (by Sadler's Wells), but he never received a name.

"So we had a contest," Blowen said, "and we got about 40 entries. We made the decision today and submitted the name to The Jockey Club. I sure hope we get it."

If there is any justice, he will, and the anonymous refugee from the nightmare of Center Brook Farm will from now on be known as Escape from NY. It was a great movie, and a brave little horse.