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.
Some of his more promising and dedicated students travel with him along the East Coast horse-showing circuit: Wellington; Culpeper, Virginia; the Hamptons in New York; and Raleigh, North Carolina. He also travels frequently with his students and other clients to Europe, when asked, to advise them when they happen to be in the market for a new horse. Show fees are less expensive across the pond, so even though the euro is holding steadily stronger than the dollar, young, quality, ripe-for-training fillies and colts which typically run $30,000 to $500,000 can be bought for less in Holland and Germany. Muente's clients pay his airfare and expenses on these buying trips; that's the typical arrangement when a moneyed, wannabe owner enlists the assistance of an equine expert. And as an adviser, Muente also sometimes charges a commission.
Judith Arnett is a thin, compact woman in her early 30s, with dirty-blond hair combed straight down in a neat bob that falls precisely at her shoulders. She became such a client of Muente's after the two met at a Raleigh horse show in July 2004. Arnett struck up a casual friendship with Muente. They began talking while he was browsing her Equestrian Shop, a traveling tack store she hauls to major horse shows along the East and West coasts. In business for seven years, Arnett sells everything a good show horse and showman would need bridles, blankets, britches, jackets, and boots. Early on, she offered to sponsor Muente and give him equipment in exchange for his wearing her shop's logo.
It was a fairly simple deal the two made on a handshake. Arnett has been riding horses and competing since she was a girl. She dropped out of college to pursue her hobby and turned her love of the sport into a successful business. Muente was a popular rider, so, Arnett reasoned, his endorsement would boost her sales.
It worked, and the two grew closer. By October 2005, Arnett and Muente were boarding an airplane to Amsterdam for a four-day trip to Holland and Germany.
And that's when things started getting complicated.
What the two can still agree on is that during their first European sortie, they stumbled across the son of Muente's stallion and brokered a deal to buy him. They acknowledge that both of them own a piece of the 5-year-old Hanoverian stallion named Ace of Grace, also called As Di Bambino and nicknamed "Bam Bam." But they cannot agree on who owns how much of an interest or when and how they came to own him together. The details of their broken friendship and tattered business relationship are playing out in a West Palm Beach courtroom, where they've asked a federal judge to sort it out.
But their versions of events are so different that last month they had U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Marra sputtering, frowning, scratching his head, and staring down the clock.
"Every time someone testifies," Marra said, "it changes."
Muente's image isn't lost on Arnett's lawyer; on the first day of an emergency three-day hearing in court last month, Arnett's lawyer had to pose the Big Question.
"Was it romantic?" asks L. Martin Reeder Jr., an attorney who counts the Palm Beach Post as one of his biggest clients.
"No, not at all," Arnett responds. "There was nothing romantic. He's very charming, charismatic. I trusted him. We were very good friends we'd go to dinner, I'd stay at his house."
Under oath, her voice is as flat as summer swamp water.
Not five minutes before answering this, her lawyer's third question, Arnett had shot Muente a scowl as she took the witness stand.
Even in her well-fitted beige skirt-suit, the horsewoman in Arnett is evident. It's cold inside this wood-paneled courtroom, but Arnett never slouches. She holds her back rod-straight. At about five feet tall, her stride is short, but her gait is confident.
Their four-day trip to Europe in October 2005 was a vacation for her, she says. She never intended to buy any horses. They'd heard about some "babies" Muente's stallion had sired via artificial insemination and thought it would be fun to see them. As Di Villagana's frozen sperm is still available for sale on the Internet.
Sure, she bought his plane ticket. But, she testifies, he was supposed to pay her back.
"He never did," she says.
To this, an attractive brunet slouching in the spectator benches perks up, puts down the novel she has been reading, and scoffs. Soon, Arnett would have her laughing derisively.
"On the last day, we saw Ace of Grace at the Axel Farm in Germany," Arnett testifies. "Pato just wanted to ride him. He was a flashy jumper, very quiet, well-mannered, and easy to ride. He was just like his father.
"It came up that he was available for sale."
Arnett decided to become Muente's investor. She ordered a presale medical examination, a vetting for which she paid about $3,000. She said she wanted to help Muente promote As Di Villagana, and buying Ace of Grace was a good way to do it; the young stallion would serve as a four-legged advertisement for the father. Arnett says she also thought she might make a nice profit reselling him in the United States.
Muente and Arnett flew home the next day. Arnett had enlisted her longtime veterinarian in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to review the horse's x-rays. Dr. Jack Schuler voiced some serious concerns in a six-page report.
Ace of Grace had crooked legs.
Arnett had trepidations but went forward with the deal. After all, famed Grand Prix racehorse Royal Kaliber had crooked legs and still won medals at the 2004 Olympics.
Up until this point, Arnett had planned to buy Ace of Grace for Muente, but the x-ray concerns led to their decision to go halves, she says.
"We had started discussing buying the horse together," she says in court. "He would negotiate on the price; $60,000 was the total price. He would wire the money to Germany, and I would reimburse him $30,000.
"I don't like owning horses in partnership because it always ends in disaster," she adds. But she did it anyway. "I am an amateur [rider]. I do not have the time to put into training. [We decided] he'd train it, I'd pay the vet bills, care, showing fees, et cetera. I was sponsoring him. He was a trusted friend. It was a natural course. He was happy."
German veterinarian and horse broker Dr. Christian Müller-Ehrenberg, a longtime friend and business associate of Muente's, negotiated a purchase price of 25,000 euros with the horse's owner; he told Muente the actual price was 27,000 euros. The difference was Müller's commission. With the exchange rate, the total equaled about $32,000.
Muente wired the money to Müller, and Arnett wrote Muente a check for $30,000 what she says she believed to be half of the purchase price.
Meanwhile, Muente paid about $3,000 to fly the horse home. It was quarantined at a U.S. Department of Agriculture farm in Maryland, a routine procedure. Then it went to Muente's stables in Virginia.
They took out a $60,000 insurance policy on the horse before it boarded its flight; Arnett paid for it. They registered him with the U.S. Equestrian Federation and changed his name, settling on As Di Bambino to identify him with his famous father.
The week they returned from Europe, Muente learned that Arnett's $30,000 check had bounced. Embarrassed and apologetic, Arnett immediately arranged to wire Muente's business account $30,006. The $6 was to cover his bank's returned-check fee, she says on the witness stand.
The pair rushed things to ensure that Bam Bam would be ready to show at that year's equestrian festival in Wellington, where Muente competes during the winter. Arnett crosses the country to the California desert horse-show circuit to avoid the snowfalls in the Northeast.
Arnett set up a joint checking account with Muente to cover Bam Bam's boarding and show fees. She gave him a second credit card on one of her business accounts in case of an emergency. And, she says, she told him what he could and couldn't use the money for. Soon, she says, she noticed unauthorized charges and checks to cover things like insurance and gear for other horses.
"I had an argument with Pato over the phone about what the charges were, why he was writing checks off our account," Arnett testifies. "And I still had no bill of sale. I became suspicious that this was not a $60,000 horse."
But then, Arnett fell ill and had to have surgery in California to treat endometriosis. Once she recovered, she hired a lawyer. By April, she had sued Muente in Culpeper County Court. A judge there had issued an order to put Bam Bam in protective custody while Arnett and Muente sorted out their differences.
When the local sheriff went to the Virginia showgrounds where Muente kept Bam Bam, Muente told him the horse was gone and would not be coming back anytime soon.
Arnett says it wasn't until December 2006 that she was able to locate Bam Bam in Wellington. In January, she filed a lawsuit under seal and requested an emergency hearing in federal court. She wanted a protective order for Bam Bam, saying Muente had "absconded" with the horse. Filing the case under seal was important to Arnett, she says, because she feared that if Muente knew about her continued effort, he might move the horse to yet another jurisdiction.
It's Muente's turn on day two. He comes on strong with a Judith-was-a-dilettante scenario but starts to crumble under cross-examination.
His lawyer, a Connecticut transplant named Avery Spencer Chapman, is himself a polo player. Linebacker shoulders stretch his almost-black navy suit and its custom-tailored seams; he shaves his tanned head to total baldness and still practices the antiquated fashion rule requiring that one's bright-white sleeves should peek out of one's jacket by two inches all the better to show off a pair of smart, gold cuff links.
Chapman looks young and out of his element in the freezing-cold courtroom. He introduces himself and describes his relationship with his client: "I was hired on Thursday and met him on Saturday," as if to indicate that no one should expect much from him. Outside of court, Chapman dismisses Arnett as a poser, calling her "a chaos junkie."
He adds: "She just likes to be in the middle of everything."
Arnett had said, with some justification, that she thought Muente might be doping Bam Bam. In February 2006, the U.S. Equestrian Federation had censured and fined Muente $500 after investigators discovered he had given As Di Villagana an excessive amount of Naproxen, a common, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory. Arnett had also said he had failed to renew Bam Bam's insurance.
But Muente testifies that it was Arnett who lacked professionalism.
"I asked about a contract; she said no," he says, speaking of their sponsorship agreement.
Muente paints Arnett as an all-around wannabe who doesn't even ride that well.
She's all talk, he says on the stand. She told him she'd sold her tack shop for $1.5 million, he adds.
"She said she had just received a lot of money from her father and had $500,000 to spend on horses," Muente says, suggesting that Arnett was making a rookie mistake. "I told her to be quiet because everybody would give her that price for a horse."
He would not have taken a vacation with her, he says. It was all business on their first trip to Europe, in October 2005.
"She wanted to see the babies of my stallion it's a very successful stallion," Muente says.
Arnett had told him that she wanted to buy a young horse or two as an investment and that she had another $150,000 or so to spend on a horse she could ride in the highest level of amateur show-jumping competitions, Muente says. For his part, Muente would train the horses at his San Jose Stables and show them on the professional circuit, earning 20 percent of any profit made when the horses were sold.
For herself, Arnett liked a mare named Go-Go Girl that the two saw in Germany.
The price was 300,000 euros. Muente says Arnett didn't hesitate and paid $3,000 to vet the horse. But then she didn't buy Go-Go Girl because of a problem with the horse's blood work.
Next, they looked at Ace of Grace.
"She showed interest in Ace of Grace," Muente testifies. "She saw the horse. I rode it, jumped it. Judith rode it. I said I liked the horse. Christian [Müller] talked to the owner for 20 minutes, and he agreed to sell it."
Arnett knew Muente would have custody of Bam Bam while he trained it, he says "a horse like that needs a professional like me to keep [it] in shape."
But while he could remember in striking detail the arrangements he says Arnett weaseled out of, Muente has trouble recalling what he himself paid for Bam Bam:
"I don't remember how much it was... $60,000? I said I'd buy the horse totally independent. I negotiated a price for Ace of Grace with Christian Müller. She called me and said she was not buying Ace of Grace because there were too many vetting issues. I called Christian Müller and told him I was going to look at the vetting and consider buying it myself.
"I fell in love with the horse. I know he has a lot of issues. [But] he looks just like his father. Showing a nice offspring of his, it would make my stallion [worth] ten times more." What had been a business deal was turning into a competition for ownership of a prized horse.
Muente wired 27,000 euros $32,479 at the time to pay for the horse he planned to rename As Di Bambino. When Bam Bam was in quarantine, Muente says, Arnett changed her mind and asked if the two could own the horse in partnership.
"Once she knew that I had bought the horse, she said she wanted to be part-owner," Muente testifies. "The commission, expenses, purchase price, everything I said the value of the horse would be $60,000."
Arnett, apparently not realizing the price was Muente's, not the horse's European owner's, wrote a check for $30,000, and the two traveled to Europe a second time in November 2005. Muente says Arnett went back because she still wanted to buy horses; Arnett says it was another vacation.
Muente says Arnett agreed to buy two other horses on that second trip Uceko and Larius spending about $350,000 on both.
Either way, once they returned, Muente discovered the check had not cleared.
"The deal ended the moment the check bounced she knew that," Muente says. "I told her that over the phone."
After about five hours on the stand, Muente's stamina has been sorely tested. A grumpy court reporter repeatedly barks at Muente to speak more slowly. And one of Arnett's three lawyers, New York attorney Cory E. Friedman, objects to so many of Chapman's questions on direct examination that Muente starts looking furtively at him before answering anything posed by his own attorney.
Muente rented three stalls on Arnett's behalf at the Littlewood Farms stables in Wellington for last year's winter season, accommodations for Bam Bam, Uceko, and Larius. But Arnett never paid for Uceko or Larius or their boarding fees, Muente says. She made repeated promises that she'd settle up, he adds. And according to Arnett, she had no idea why Muente believed she ever had a few hundred thousand dollars to spend on horses, nor did she know why he had said she ever agreed to buy any horse other than Bam Bam.
"She told me she wired the money [for the two other horses] but said her accounts were frozen by the feds after 9/11 because of her dad," Muente testifies.
It was like a firecracker going off in the courtroom. Arnett and her lawyers looked stunned. Yes, her father is a Harvard-educated chemist, and she had talked about her admiration for him with Muente and others. But, Arnett insisted, Muente's claim that she had ever mentioned 9/11 or frozen bank accounts was "a complete fabrication."
As the deal between Arnett and Muente appeared to take on the scale and complexity of the merger between Time-Warner and AOL, Judge Marra looked increasingly impatient, glancing frequently at the courtroom clock and at his law clerk.
On Muente's behalf, two others took the witness stand to testify on day three of the hearing about Arnett's weirdo terrorism excuse.
Müller, the German horse broker and veterinarian, said he'd shared with Muente his doubts about Arnett's intentions from the beginning.
"I asked him several times if she was serious," says Müller, who, like Muente, also resembles George Hamilton though his tan is a bit darker and he is larger-boned. "I asked Pato if it was worth the effort to bring her to Europe to buy a horse. I asked [her] if she was serious. She said she had a price range of $200,000 to $250,000 and she had more."
Müller testifies that he borrowed money from his family to buy Larius because, he says, Arnett had promised to pay him back once federal agents released her accounts. She sent him a paper confirmation that she had wired him the money, he says, but no money ever arrived.
"I didn't receive any vire," Müller yells. "She made me believe that I will get my money! She came up with another story. She always made us believe that the next day or maybe the next day we would get our money. She said it was at her brother's; he's in Florida. I went to California on business and spoke to her there. She said they had frozen her father's funds... something about nuclear weapons... I don't know exactly. He was under special watch.
"My opinion about Ms. Arnett? She's absolutely not truthful at all."
Müller starts to describe how Arnett cried after riding one of the horses he was showing her, and suddenly the judge has had enough.
"This is the third day of this hearing about a horse that's supposedly worth $30,000 to $60,000," Marra sputters. "You've spent more on attorneys' fees at this point. I don't get it!
"Why are we spending time on whether Miss Arnett cried after riding a horse? Who cares if she cried? How is it relevant to the business deal? And what difference does it make if she cried every time she saw him?"
But Friedman, Arnett's attorney, soldiers on, pushing Müller to explain the 9/11 story.
"Isn't that a little fantastic?" a skeptical Friedman says.
"I don't know vat dat means," Müller says.
"Wouldn't that be like saying she was having wiener schnitzel with Otto von Bismarck on Mars?" Friedman says.
Uh, Müller says, "No."
"Does it really matter?" Marra wants to know.
"I'm just trying to get out whether he could believe something like that," Friedman says.
"I think you've made your point," says Marra, waving his hands like a traffic cop during rush hour.
"OK," Friedman says, taking his seat.
At that, Chapman asks one more question of Müller, and Friedman objects, probably for the thirtieth time that day; Marra sustains the objection, but Chapman doesn't understand.
"What was the objection?" asks Chapman, the lawyer who earlier had warned not to expect too much of him.
"It doesn't matter," Marra says. "It's sustained."
"We're never going to get out of here," Friedman says.
Marra: "You're right about that."
Next up, two members of the Muente fan club.
Amanda Strain, 33, testifies on Muente's behalf. She is a professional rider and competes in show-jumping competitions. She is able to shed a little more light on the frozen-funds story.
"Judith always had great admiration for her father as a chemist," says Strain, a brunet who is staying warm in a big sweater. "He was in nuclear waste cleanup."
Strain says she believes Arnett's bank accounts were frozen even though it didn't really make any sense to her.
"Weirder things have happened," she says.
Finally, Muente's lawyer calls his last witness the woman who had chortled at Arnett while she was testifying on the first day of the hearing.
Erin Hancock, 25, clad in a purple Ralph Lauren cable-knit, is engaged to Muente's barn manager at San Jose Stables. She testifies that she wants to be clear: She and Muente are not romantically involved. She too takes the witness stand to bolster Muente's version of events.
Finally, Chapman rests his case.
Arnett's attorneys call one more witness Chicago department store heir Marshall Field VI, who is the third and final man involved in this case who bears a striking resemblance to George Hamilton.
Field, 40, whose family no longer owns Marshall Field's Department Store, has the healthiest tan of the bunch. Though Field surely came to court in a car, it didn't look as if he'd sat down or even moved since dressing that morning. His blue-striped shirt was unwrinkled, the white collar stiff. And his yellow tie contrasted nicely with his dark-blue blazer.
Once engaged to Paul Newman's daughter, Field is himself a dashing horseman. He owns a farm in upstate New York and runs a business breeding, selling, and training horses. He and Arnett are friends, and she asked him to testify as a character witness after Muente had called her a liar.
"She's always been truthful with me" was all Field says. He was on and off the stand in less time than it took to ride up three flights in the elevator.
Field's apparent allergy to courtrooms could relate to past events. As part of a 1996 racketeering trial, federal prosecutors indirectly identified him as part of a conspiracy to kill competition horses to collect insurance money. He was never convicted or even formally accused. The old allegation didn't surface in the current case. (Chapman said he knew of Field's rumored involvement, but he thought it was old, unsubstantiated news.)
Day three, emergency hearing, federal court: As attorneys take turns making final remarks, Judge Marra interrupts with a simple, Solomonic solution: Why not sell Bam Bam, split the proceeds even-steven, and call it quits?
It was not to be.
Friedman and Chapman explain that their clients have become much too attached to the horse by this point. It is no longer about the money.
Friedman has a counterproposal: Arnett should get Bam Bam, and Marra should use his judicial authority to convert the three-day horse hearing into a final hearing so that His Honor wouldn't have to empanel a jury and hold a full-blown trial.
Marra: "It's very tempting."
In the end, the judge stops short of granting Arnett permanent custody, but he orders Muente to turn Bam Bam over to her until a jury can sort things out. And in a 14-page ruling issued February 22, Marra sides with Arnett, saying Muente had lied and acted in bad faith. "At this point... the evidence demonstrates that [Muente] sought to defraud [Arnett]," Marra wrote.
A few days later, Arnett dispatches a horse trailer and a team of wranglers to pick up Bam Bam at Littlewood Farms in Wellington. She likely won't be back in Florida until the next court hearing. Nothing's on the docket yet, but Judge Marra surely hasn't heard the end of this tale. And the meter is still running on court time and attorneys' fees.