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The worst, and best of humanity
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
The horse's name is Rag Sheet and somehow he still likes people, kind of amazing when you consider he was among the 177 malnourished, diseased thoroughbreds found in April on the Center Brook, New York farm of owner Ernie Paragallo. Maybe he just understands that he's going to be fine now, now that he's found people who love him and will care for him, people who help restore your faith in mankind.
Rag Sheet, a 9-year-old gelding with an inauspicious racing career, now lives on the Buskirk, New York farm of Julie Walawender. Walawender didn't have to work miracles. She just needed to give the horse what he needed -- enough food, some vet work and her affection. In ways that only a horse can, he tells her thank you every day.
"He has really come alive," she said. "He has the most wonderful, sweet disposition and not a mean bone in his body. He is so theatrical at feeding time and makes me laugh every day just watching him dance around and whinny when it's time for dinner. It is truly an honor and blessing to have him with me and give him the care he so deserves. I have always found it hard to believe people would mistreat such wonderful, precious animals, and now that I have gotten to know Rag Sheet it breaks my heart even more."
After authorities, including workers from the Columbia-Greene County Humane Society, moved in, raided the farm and arrested Paragallo, more than 76 horses have been turned over to retirement organizations, horse lovers and others with big hearts.
Walawender, who works for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, is helping to retrain Rag Sheet so that he can be adopted out as a riding horse. Mary Anne Macica and her family took in three horses. Eventually, they will be ridden again and could become useful riding horses. But that's not why her family adopted Set The Clock, Smog City and Black Jean Val. It was more out of a sense of obligation, a feeling that somebody had to make amends for what Paragallo allegedly did.
"I've always had horses and other animals in my life and I was just touched by these horses and what they went through," she said. "It just seemed like the right thing to do."
The first time Macica saw the horses they were a ghastly site. The worst was Set The Clock, now known as "George" around the Macica household in Saratoga Springs, New York.
"George was in the worst shape," she said. "When we brought him home, he was very ill. He had lice and mites and internal parasites. He had rain rot on 40 percent of his body. He had a respiratory infection and all four feet had stone bruises. He was about 400 pounds underweight. I've been around horses a long time and I've never seen anything like this."
Some six months later, George, who is 7, and his friends are thriving, both physically and mentally. They should be filled with anger, but they are not.
"My husband calls them my 1,000-pound dogs," she said. "Horses are one of the most forgiving animals there are, and they probably get abused more than any other animal. They're still there and they're still giving."
Cheap As A Penny is living in Virginia with Ann Daniel and is being trained to be a hunter jumper.
"He's doing wonderful," Daniel said. "He seems to be pretty bomb proof. He's a quiet horse and I love him to death. I've had horses all my life and can't afford an expensive one. I'm willing to take on a project. We'll show him and do the hunter circuit in Virginia. He doesn't know how to jump yet, but he will. He's very willing and he's very sweet."
There's even a delicious irony to this story. Seven Paragallo horses are being cared for on a farm at a prison and, who knows, maybe it's the same prison that Paragallo himself will some day call home. They are being cared for at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation's facility at the Wallkill Correctional Facility in Wallkill, New York, where farm manager Jim Tremper and his staff of inmates are nursing them back to health.
"It's still hard for me to talk about it," Tremper said. "I get so upset. It makes me so angry. They just abandoned these horses. They did nothing for them. Why? There are so many people out there who want a nice horse and would take decent care of them. Instead, they just left these horses out in a field and did nothing."
Tremper said that some of the older horses were in reasonable shape. It was the younger Paragallo horses that were particularly bad. One, a horse named Energy Flow, weighed just 640 pounds, Tremper said. Energy Flow was among a group that had had very little handling by humans, which has made the job performed by Tremper and the inmates who assist him more difficult than normal.
"None of the four young ones had been handled," he said. "We've had a heck of a time with them. They were like wild range horses that had never had human contact."
Tremper said that each of the seven has gained about 100 pounds. With more time and care, some will be suitable for adoption. Others, Tremper said, were so beaten up from their time at the Paragallo farm that it is unlikely they will ever be ridden. But they are in good hands and will always be safe. They will live happily ever after, thanks to the kindness of some special people.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.