CATSKILL, N.Y. -- Prominent New York thoroughbred breeder and owner Ernie Paragallo was convicted Wednesday of mistreating dozens of malnourished horses on his Hudson Valley farm.
A judge convicted Paragallo of 33 of 34 misdemeanor animal cruelty counts in a nonjury trial in Greene County.
The 52-year-old Long Island resident was charged after state police and animal welfare investigators raided his farm in Coxsackie in April and seized 177 malnourished horses. He could face up to two years in jail and $33,000 in fines, $1,000 for each count.
Most of the horses were eventually adopted by other horse farms around the nation, but several were in such poor shape they had to be euthanized.
Paragallo, who testified last week that he didn't know the horses on his farm weren't being fed enough, had no comment as he left court.
Michael Howard, Paragallo's lawyer, called the verdict disappointing and surprising and said he would appeal the convictions.
"This requires a horse owner to take on a very high level of burden," he said.
Ron Perez, director of the Hudson Greene Humane Society, said he was pleased with the verdict.
"This is going to set a precedent for animal cruelty cases across the country," said Perez, who took part in the raid that uncovered underfed and parasite-infested horses on Paragallo's 500-acre Center Brook Farm, about 20 miles south of Albany.
Paragallo, former owner of 1996 Kentucky Derby favorite and fifth-place finisher Unbridled's Song, has started more than 4,500 horses and earned more than $20 million in purses. After his arrest, the state Racing and Wagering Board suspended him from racing at New York tracks.
"This case was a shocker to the racing community," board spokesman Joe Mahoney said Wednesday. "People involved in racing love their horses. It's a rare exception that a farm owner would fall down on his responsibilities like this."
Paragallo testified that his feeding methods were intended to slim down the horses prior to breeding, based on "Joe Taylor's Complete Guide to Breeding and Raising Racehorses." He said that the farm was run by eight workers and that he was unaware the horses were in poor shape because he hadn't been there in the nine months prior to his arrest.
The farm manager, Eddie Salazar, didn't testify at the trial because he went home to Guatemala to be with his sick mother, Howard said. Paragallo paid for his plane ticket out of compassion, the lawyer said. One of the cruelty counts against Paragallo was dropped because it depended on Salazar's testimony.
District Attorney Terry Wilhelm presented purchase records indicating that only 10,500 pounds of grain was delivered to the farm from July to December 2008, when there were 200 horses there. From July to December 2007, the records showed Paragallo had bought 146,250 pounds of grain.
Donald Nickerson, a "kill buyer" in upstate New York, testified that he received two trailers full of emaciated horses from Paragallo's farm in February 2009 that were in such "horrific" condition that they couldn't even be shipped to slaughter in Canada. One was dead on arrival and four died soon after.
The state's Thoroughbred Breeding and Development Fund, which gave out $6.3 million in breeder awards and $2.4 million in stallion awards in 2009, implemented more stringent inspection standards for the 400 participating farms after Paragallo's arrest. Paragallo had collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fund over the past six years, Mahoney said.