09/26/2006 11:00PM

A terrible fate, narrowly avoided


ARCADIA, Calif. - Who's up for a grim tale that still has a chance for a happy ending? First, a few dates to set the timeline:

Oct. 18, 2002. The 5-year-old Irish horse Champion Lodge establishes himself as a decent prospect for American buyers with a victory in a handicap event at Newmarket.

March 15, 2003. Champion Lodge makes a quick strike in California with a six-length victory in the Grade 2 San Luis Rey Stakes at Santa Anita Park for new owner Ron Charles and trainer Sandy Shulman.

April 27, 2006. In an attempt to battle back from ligament injuries, Champion Lodge emerges from a work at Santa Anita with a torn tendon and is officially retired.

May 11, 2006. With the owner's blessing, Shulman donates Champion Lodge to a high school agricultural program in Lake Elsinore, Calif., something the trainer has done with positive results on several other occasions.

Sept. 11, 2006. On a rainy night in Fort Collins, Colo., 24-year-old Margaret DeSarno, an aspiring veterinarian and accomplished show rider from New Jersey, leads a crippled, underweight Champion Lodge out of a feedlot pen and onto a horse trailer bound for her 16-acre farm in nearby Wellington. She has no clue as to the horse's identity. She only knows he has a puncture wound in one hock, a sickening gash over his right eye, and possible founder in at least three feet. Champion Lodge limps onto DeSarno's trailer without hesitation.

DeSarno had spotted Champion Lodge in the feedlot three days earlier, along with two other Thoroughbreds who were left behind when 46 other horses were loaded onto a double-decker trailer truck designed for low-headed cattle and bound for the Cavel Co. slaughterhouse operating in DeKalb, Ill. The shipment had originated in Arizona and had made a swing through New Mexico, stopping in Fort Collins for feed and water.

DeSarno was told that when it came time to reload the slaughter-bound cargo, Champion Lodge was too lame to keep up, and by the time he had hobbled to the trailer, it was crammed full.

"He could have been on that truck," DeSarno said, "and we would never have known it. His lameness was about the only thing that saved him."

Even so, Champion Lodge was not out of the woods. Were it not for DeSarno's quick research and networking to cobble together enough in pledges and donations to buy Champion Lodge at the $500 killer price, he would most assuredly have been on the next load headed for Cavel.

Instead, Champion Lodge awoke on the morning of Sept. 12 to the benign sounds and smells of Margaret DeSarno's farm.

"At the feedlot, he looked like the walking dead horse," DeSarno said. "There was no life left in his eye. When I took him out that Tuesday morning, he looked at me, he looked at the stall, and he stood there for what must have been five minutes. He seemed to know that everything was going to be all right."

It was, but not before Champion Lodge had to endure two weeks of intensive care at Colorado State University, where DeSarno is applying as a veterinary student. As it turned out, his feet had not foundered, but they were in desperate shape, and he was no better than 50-50 to survive near kidney failure.

Enough suspense. On Tuesday night, Champion Lodge was released from CSU and sent home with DeSarno to continue his recuperation. What happens next depends on how well he recovers, but at least he has been rescued from the torture of double-decker transport and the horror of slaughter.

Meanwhile, in California, Shulman and Charles are intent to find out how their former stakes horse ended up marked for slaughter. They have been told that a student was given the horse upon graduating from the agricultural program - a regular practice - but after that the plot gets lost. If the student sold the horse to a killer-buyer, California laws were violated. If the horse was sold in good faith to an agent or trainer from out of state who misrepresented the intended use of the horse, there also could be cause for prosecution.

DeSarno contacted Shulman once she figured out who he was. The trainer has assumed the financial burden of Champion Lodge's purchase, his hospitalization, and his recuperation.

"I was in shock," Shulman said. "I told them to do whatever they had to do. Margaret was sending me e-mail pictures every day as the horse got better. But the more I heard of the story, the madder I got."

Join the club. Champion Lodge, quite obviously, was not one of those "unwanted" horses that slaughter proponents trot out to defend the practice. He is a horse of some note that at some point was mishandled and ultimately abused through neglect, alive today only because of blind luck and the intervention of earthly angels.

Ron Charles, who has become president of Santa Anita Park since Champion Lodge's glorious afternoon in the San Luis Rey, gets sick to his stomach at the thought of what might have been

"As hard as we tried to do what was in the best interest of the horse, it went sideways on us," Charles said. "Thank God this time there was a happy ending. But I know this happens far too often, and I want to know how we stop it."