MIAMI – When rescuers found the horse, he was tied to a palm tree on a Northwest Miami-Dade County farm where animals die for meat: a skinny, diseased wreck with rotting hooves and hide. Only the tattoo inside his upper lip hinted at his regal bloodline: Freedom's Flight, descendant of Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Secretariat.
"Anything that could be wrong with a horse was wrong with him," said Richard Cuoto, now Freedom's Flight's owner. "He's a fighter, but he had his head down, like, 'Just shoot me."'
Freedom's Flight's descent from the thoroughbred circuit's pampered paddocks into equine hell took just three months after a mishap at Gulfstream Park. It's not possible to document each step of his sad journey, but Cuoto, a board member of the South Florida Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, believes he was destined for the underground horse meat market.
"He was thrown away three, four times," Cuoto said.
Freedom's Flight was born Feb. 16, 2005, at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky's Bluegrass region, linked to greatness by sire and dam.
His father, Pulpit, is the grandson of Seattle Slew, who won the Triple Crown in 1977. Freedom Flight's great-great grandfather, the legendary Secretariat, won it in 1973.
His mother is Heather's Flight, granddaughter of Nijinsky, great-granddaughter of Northern Dancer.
Herman Heinlein of Plantation, a retired New York landscape contractor, owns Heather's Flight and expected great things from her foal.
"We had high hopes," said Heinlein, 76, "but these things happen."
After the horse failed to draw a six-figure bid at Kentucky's prestigious Keeneland Yearling Sale, Heinlein sent him to Florida, where he raced for the first time Dec. 22, 2007, at Calder.
On April 4, 2008, after another two races, Freedom's Flight made his only run as a 3-year-old, at Gulfstream. Seconds after clearing the gate, his front leg snapped but didn't pierce the skin. He came from the back of the pack to finish third anyway.
"He's a competitor," Cuoto said. "When they're on the track, they know where the finish line is . . . The jockey didn't know he was injured. Right after finish line, he started to break down."
Trainer Jose Pinchin called Heinlein to report the injury.
"They told me his racing career was over," said Heinlein, who owns 100 horses. He faced a choice: pay to euthanize Freedom's Flight or, as Pinchin suggested, give him to Marian Brill, a 44-year veteran of Florida racing and a horse rescuer.
To a racehorse owner, an animal that can't run "is a broken machine that don't work," Brill said. "They get rid of it."
Heinlein says he kept title to the horse "because I didn't want somebody to get him back to racing."
Still a stallion, Freedom's Flight could have undergone expensive treatment for his leg then become a breeder, but "he never proved himself as a racehorse," said Brill, and since his famous ancestors begat hundreds of offspring, "Why breed the one that's farther down the line?"
Brill said she "started rehabbing him" but his injuries were too daunting. Then, she said, a man whose name she didn't know bought him for $500.
"They loaded him on a trailer and left," she said.
For the next two months, Freedom's Flight endured both insult and injury. Based on conversations with state parimutuel investigators, Cuoto believes that for part of that time, he hobbled along on his broken leg as a riding pony for kids.
And someone gelded him — ruling out any future career as a stud.
He was among several distressed horses that Officer Debbie Puentes of the Miami-Dade Police Department's Agricultural Patrol Unit spotted July 7, 2008, on Manuel Coto's property, which the Florida Department of Agriculture oversees as a "garbage-feeder farm," authorized to feed cooked garbage to swine.
"The guy buys and sells a lot of animals," said SPCA cruelty investigator Laurie Waggoner, who has responded to other calls at Coto's place. "I know they slaughter pigs and goats" without the proper permits.
Chickens, too, acknowledges Coto, who said he's in the process of coming into compliance with the appropriate regulations.
Waggoner doesn't know whether Coto butchers horses, and he adamantly denies it.
"Anybody asks me to do that, I'd send them to hell," he said. "I can kill a cow, but what are you gonna kill a horse for? I think that's bad."
Coto said Freedom's Flight was one of several horses he'd bought in Lake City "a couple of days" earlier. His price tag: $100.
An SPCA vet diagnosed Freedom's Flight with severe "rain rot," which made him lose most of his hair, bites, wounds, severe rashes, abscesses under his hooves, detoxing from steroids, a fractured right cannon — shin — bone, and strangles, a potentially deadly, highly contagious bacterial infection.
Yet sick as he was, "there was something about him," Waggoner said. "I didn't want to leave that horse there. He was still so trusting of people."
She offered Coto $200. He declined the money and allowed her to isolate the horse on his land until she could make other arrangements. Freedom's Flight spent the next five weeks in quarantine, getting treatment for strangles and, finally, his broken leg.
About a week into the horse's recuperation, Couto, the SPCA board member, checked the underside of his upper lip and saw the tattoo: I35289. The Jockey Club thoroughbred registry in Kentucky matched the number to Freedom's Flight.
"I adopted him two weeks after we seized him," Cuoto said. "By that time, I'd really bonded with him."
He says he's spent about $30,000 on vet care.
Today, Freedom's Flight cavorts in a lush pasture, his coat an iridescent copper — 1,300 pounds of rippling muscle and coltish curiosity.
Cuoto, a former motocross racer, says that Freedom's Flight changed his life. Now he's crusading against the illegal horse meat trade, which he said has earned him enemies — thus he prefers to keep his horse's whereabouts secret.
He believes that mom-and-pop butchers get $7 to $20 a pound for the meat and only sell to known customers.
"Most people buy it for medicinal purposes," he said. "They think it cures blood disorders, AIDS, and helps with the side effects of chemotherapy."
What they don't realize is that horse meat not raised for human consumption can be riddled with drugs, chemicals and disease, he said.
Freedom's Flight's story has gotten global attention. Now the SPCA hopes he'll become a star.
The group has entered him in a contest to play his famous ancestor, Secretariat, in a Disney movie.
He's the same color, has the same white "socks" and the same mannerisms, Cuoto notes.
Only the white blaze on his face doesn't match, "but they can fix that with makeup."