A version of this story appeared in Newsday on April 12, 2009.
COXSACKIE, N.Y. - On March 3, 2004, a 3-year-old chestnut filly named Theonlyword won the first race at Aqueduct and her steel-gray stablemate Coconut Martini won the second.
A year ago, the two horses bred by Ernie Paragallo, of Lloyd Neck, are barely recognizable as the gleaming, galloping thoroughbreds shown in photos carrying jockey Richard Migliore in the red and black colors of Paraneck Stable.
Rescued from a kill pen where they awaited transport to a Canadian slaughterhouse, the two mares are at a Pennsylvania farm - crawling with lice, infested with worms, ribs showing through patches of scabby skin between clumps of sparse, dull hair.
The farm has two other skinny, parasite-infected Paragallo horses rescued from the same kill pen.
There's a 5-year-old unregistered filly with a festering leg wound and a torn vulva, and a dark bay mare named Finely Decorated who suffers from strangles, a highly contagious throat infection. She may be carrying a foal.
"They're doing pretty well, considering," said Christy Sheidy, co-founder of Another Chance 4 Horses in Bernville, Pa. "We've had them for two weeks, and you can already see them gaining weight. It's been a real struggle with their skin; they had such horrible sores, we couldn't even groom them at first. We couldn't even comfort them with a stroke. They'd flinch if you touched them."
After authorities seized 177 malnourished horses at his Center Brook Farm in the rolling hills 20 miles south of Albany, Paragallo was charged with 22 counts of animal cruelty and led out of Coxsackie Town Court in handcuffs.
New York State Racing and Wagering Board chairman John Sabini released a statement after Paragallo's arrest, saying the board had "immediately terminated his privilege to be involved with thoroughbred racing in New York."
Paragallo, the owner of 1996 Derby favorite and fifth-place finisher Unbridled's Song, was arrested after driving from Long Island to be questioned by investigators about the conditions on his breeding farm. He said he hadn't visited the farm for at least nine months.
"It wasn't knowing neglect," Paragallo told The Associated Press. "Did I try and harm any of those horses? Absolutely not. Did some of them come up skinny? Absolutely. Was it mismanagement? Absolutely. I'm not shying away from it. But I didn't abuse them."
The 177 horses remain on the farm under the supervision of the Columbia Greene Humane Society, which has brought in hay, grain and mineral blocks, straw bedding for the broodmares, and veterinarians to tend to wounds.
Paragallo agreed to transfer ownership of 67 of the horses to the humane society for future adoption. Two other horses were removed from the farm a week ago by Colleen Segarra of Equine Rescue Resource in Pine Bush, 65 miles northwest of New York City.
"I don't know how such a high-ranking stable in three years could just plummet like this," said Jennifer Pederson, who worked as Paragallo's trainer and oversaw the breeding operation until he fired her in March 2006. "It's very hard on my heart. I'm absolutely devastated.
"It's just horrifying to know this was going on. The horses rescued from the kill pen last month and from Paragallo's farm this week weren't the first neglected horses taken from the farm, Pederson said.
In 2007, the farm manager released three underweight, parasite-infested horses to Susan Wagner of Equine Advocates in Chatham. They have since recovered.
The horses on Sheidy's farm were among about two dozen horses picked up at Center Brook Farm by a transporter who was supposed to take them to a farm in Florida.
The transporter told Sheidy the horses were in such bad shape, he didn't want to take them. "The farm help said two had already died, and if he didn't take the others, they'd just bury them when they died," Sheidy said. "So he took them to the kill pen because he felt it was the only humane thing to do."
Most of the horses were sent to a Canadian slaughterhouse that supplies horse meat to Europe, where in some countries it's considered a delicacy.
Lisa Barkman, a former employee of the farm, said, "We have no idea why the owner neglected to provide enough feed," she said. "It's a case of an overstock of horses and not enough feed being supplied."
"Every horse we saw here was thin," said Ron Perez, president of the Columbia Greene Humane Society. "They're in desperate need of some groceries. The staff here have done the best job they could with what they had, but this is not the way these animals should be living. We're overseeing all the feeding now, and hopefully, we'll start having improvement."