MIAMI — When rescuers found the horse, he was tied to a palm tree on a Northwest Miami-Dade 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 Couto, 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 Couto, a board member of the South Florida Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, thinks he was destined for the underground horse meat market.
"He was thrown away three, four times," said Couto, 38.
Freedom's Flight was born Feb. 16, 2005, at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., 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 1964 Derby winner Northern Dancer.
Herman Heinlein of Plantation, Fla., 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 the 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 two more 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.
Trainer José 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.
Heinlein said 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 and 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, 58, 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, Couto thinks 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 on 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.
Waggoner, 44, 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."
An SPCA vet diagnosed Freedom's Flight with severe "rain rot," which made him lose most of his hair, as well as bites; wounds; severe rashes; abscesses under his hooves; detoxing from steroids; a broken right cannon 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 but let her 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," Couto said. "By that time, I'd really bonded with him."
He says he has 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.
Freedom's Flight's story has gotten global attention. Now the SPCA hopes he'll become a star. It 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, Couto said.
Only the white blaze on his face doesn't match, "but they can fix that with makeup."