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They Feed Horses, Don't They?

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IT WAS NOT A PRETTY PICTURE. EARLY this month about 100 underfed Arabian horses were found at a Westchester County farm north of New York City. Some were starving. Some had protruding ribs and haunches. Others had mangy coats. None had been inoculated against rabies; none had received routine hoof care. And those were the survivors; at least four horses were found to have died in the past four months.

All of this came to light Nov. 4 when U.S. marshals raided Millfield Stables in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., a farm that court papers show is indirectly owned by Paolo Gucci, 62, an heir to the famed Gucci leather-goods empire. Over the next few days the marshals seized 15 emaciated Arabians that Gucci had purchased from a Texas breeder in May 1992 but had allegedly not finished paying for. The 15 horses will be returned to Texas when they are strong enough to travel. The other 85 remain at Millfield Stables. All were gaunt and weakened, says Gucci’s estranged wife, Jennifer, 43—who is involved in an acrimonious two-year divorce battle with Paolo—because “Paolo will just go to no end not to give me a settlement.”

Not so, says Gucci’s new love, former stable girl Penny Armstrong, 24, who is mother to his 9-month-old daughter, Alyssa. She inspected Millfield Stables in October, she insists, and found no problems. “Most of the horses were fine,” she says, claiming that the tabloids exaggerated their conditions and that Jennifer Gucci is raising the issue solely to force his financial hand. “She’s trying to get at him in any way,” she says, adding that Gucci was traveling and could not be reached.

Jennifer Gucci is not the only one who links the substandard conditions at Millfield Stables to her divorce proceedings in 1991. Alexis Bitely, Gucci’s former stable manager, says, “When the divorce first started, things began to deteriorate. Until then, the horses were all well-fed and healthy.”

But by last January, says Bitely, there was little food because the feed bills hadn’t been paid. During the next 10 months the horses would sometimes go as long as five days unfed. “Paolo doesn’t want his wife to have the property or the horses,” she speculates. “He wants to prove that he has no money so that she gets none from him.”

In May, Jennifer, a former opera singer who lives in Manhattan, stopped by the farm. “It was unbelievable,” she says. “I got on the phone to my husband [in England], who I don’t often speak to, and I said, ‘For godsakes, Paolo, do something about these horses, you idiot.’ And he said, ‘What do you want me to do? Get money from trees?’ ”

Meanwhile, Bitely spent $3,000 of her own on feed; Jennifer Gucci, who claims her husband has cut her off financially, contributed $700 (her bank account, she says, held only $1,500 at that time). By May, reports Bitely, “the pasture was bare of grass, since the horses had eaten every bit of digestible material. In fact, they had begun to eat the wood fence.” Hunger wasn’t the only problem. In June a colt died of rabies. And three expired from colic.

Dealings between the Guccis had eroded as well. In March, before being released on $100,000 bond, Paolo was jailed for 24 hours in Bridgeport, Conn., for failure to pay $350,000 in alimony and support for daughter Gemma, 10 (the case is still pending). It was not Paolo’s first public family fight. In 1986 he blew the whistle on his father, Aldo Gucci, causing the 81-year-old head of the family business to be jailed in the U.S. for a year for tax evasion. On another occasion, Paolo emerged from a board meeting covered in blood, allegedly from a fistfight with his father, brothers and cousin. And in 1980, the same year he left the business, he was sued by the family over his intent to use the Gucci name for his own ventures (he retains limited rights).

Yet the long-term neglect of the horses puzzles many, since as recently as 1992, Gucci sponsored the Preakness Triple Crown Ball. However, the SPCA of Westchester, responding to numerous calls, sent an agent to check on the horses several times, ordered shelters built (some were) and was preparing to seize the horses when the U.S. marshals moved in. Now the society monitors the situation twice daily, ensuring that the horses are fed. “I’m sure this is all part of the divorce problem,” says Elly Burzon, director of the SPCA. “But we really don’t care about that. We just want to make sure these animals are fed.”

MARJORIE ROSEN

CYNTHIA WANG in Newburgh and LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in London