Like much of the Sunshine State, the Village of Wellington became the gated-home community it is because a developer willed it. New York accountant Charles Wellington bought 16,000 acres here on spec in 1951. Later came the track hoes and bulldozers that transformed the scrubland into neatly carved pastures, suburbs, and shopping centers. The strip malls are tiled, Mediterranean interpretations of Colonial Williamsburg architecture. Walls made of solid brick, not cinderblock a rare sight in South Florida shield multimillion-dollar homes and pricey condominiums in neighborhoods with names like Bridle Path and Polo Chase.
The equestrian complex in Wellington, 15 miles inland from the Town of Palm Beach, has gained an international reputation as a top competition venue. Prince Charles played polo in "Welly" while the late Princess Diana looked on. Glenn Close's daughter competes here, as does the daughter of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Tommy Lee Jones plays polo nearby, and Bruce Springsteen, Dan Marino, Kelly Klein, and Lou Dobbs are often seen hanging out in the clubs and stands. Members of illustrious Palm Beach families with names like Busch and du Pont are regulars.
It is all an expensive endeavor serious show horses can cost upward of $150,000, stable fees are $3,000 for the December-to-March season, and even shoes (the metal ones, not Prada) can run up to $500 a month. A 2001 study by the Palm Beach Equestrian Commission reported that the horse industry contributes $500 million to the local economy each year.
Polo, horseracing, show-jumping, and dressage have long been the pastimes of kings. In Wellington, the self-made rich and their heirs have adopted the equine arts as their own, together with a certain high-strung, whinnying culture. Along the way, litigation has come into its own as the horse set's favorite indoor sport. The big draw at this year's Winter Equestrian Festival: a brawl in federal court that flips the lid off the insular world of professional horse people and sets a new standard for icky backbiting, legal frivolity, and purple melodrama.
It's an equine opera long on farce, at times grotesque, and starring a stallion named Bam Bam, an Argentine hunk named Pato, and a wily horsewoman who wound up on top of both.
Across the paddock, Patricio Muente looks like lots of other men trotting their stallions around the Village of Wellington. He wears skin-tight riding pants and resembles supertan actor George Hamilton.
Muente, 32, is a slightly shorter version of Hamilton. Atop his chocolate-colored stallion, As Di Villagana, Muente's muscles move in tandem with those of his horse. Leaning into jumps, he flashes a blinding smile, but his gaze is locked in deep determination as he navigates the four-foot fences.
Called Pato, "the Duck," by friends, he keeps his dark, wavy locks cropped short and sports a healthier tan than the actual George Hamilton (himself an erstwhile Palm Beach socialite whose mother is described as "glamorous Townie Ann Hamilton" in the seventh edition of Palm Beach Power & Glory, Wit & Wisdom, a guidebook to the South Florida upper crust). Off the trails, Muente drives a silver Mercedes Benz coupe with a black frame on the Virginia license plate advertising San Jose Stables, his farm in Middleburg, Virginia. The interior of the car is immaculate and devoid of decoration, but a lone scrunchie on the gearshift hints at a possible, serious girlfriend a source of despair and suicidal ideation to other female passengers, one supposes.
Muente's handsome face and flashing smile lead even male sportswriters to use adjectives like dashing and charming. Last summer, Roanoke [Virginia] Times reporter Ray Cox noted that "Muente's Latin movie-star good looks have contributed to a substantial following in the female portion of horse-show audiences." The bottom line on Muente: He's the kind of guy who wears pastel-blue cashmere cable-knit sweaters or pink, button-down polo shirts and still manages to look fiercely virile.
Muente speaks perfect English at a rapid clip. He moved to the United States in 1997 from his home outside Buenos Aires and named his stables after his family farm in Argentina, Estancia San Jose. Riding is one of his family's hobbies, and Muente has been on horses almost since he could walk. In his early teens, he started taking lessons with professional trainers and soon began winning awards, like the prestigious Equestrian Cup in 1991, then two national championships representing the German Club.
By 2000, Muente was training with famed Olympic rider Norman Dello Joio and was touring Europe, taking home first- and second-place awards at show-jumping contests in Germany and Holland, respectively. The next year, Muente opened San Jose Stables in Virginia's horse country, and except for the winter season in Wellington, Muente is based at his farm in Virginia, where he trains young horses and riders.