The international prize-winning horse had just placed second in the Grand Prix of Le Pin, France, weeks before it came to the Stephens’s rural farm for a new life in Florida.
Here in the United States, Phedras de Blondel was supposed to compete and take top prizes. But days after its arrival in Manatee County, the horse’s bloody carcass was found not far from where it slept.
The 12-year-old horse was led out of its pen and killed, with its remains discovered by the owners on Sunday morning, according to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.
“We determined it was basically slaughtered right on their property,” said sheriff’s office spokesman Dave Bristow, “presumably for the horse meat.”
Investigators suspect more than one person was involved in stealing and killing the horse. “It was a gruesome scene,” Bristow said. “There was a lot of blood involved.”
Owner Steve Stephens told the Bradenton Herald that his wife, Debbie, had grand ambitions for 1,300-pound Phedras de Blondel, valued at an estimated $200,000. The horse was going to be a star jumper.
“It’s one of the cruelest things that could happen to any horse,” Debbie Stephens, an accomplished show jumper, told the Associated Press. “This just turned my life around.”
“I’ve never witnessed anything like it in my life,” Steve Stephens told ABC affiliate WFTS. “He was basically murdered.”
All that was left of the horse was its ribcage, neck and head, he told the station.
Such a case is uncommon in Manatee County, Bristow said, but horses have been stolen and butchered elsewhere in the state.
Horse meat is more common in other countries, including in various Latin American, Caribbean and European nations. But the meat is effectively illegal in Florida (it has to be processed by a licensed slaughterhouse and labeled).
Still, the demand for the banned commodity has spawned a black market in the diverse state, according to animal rights activists.
In 2009, at least 17 butchered horses were found in Miami-Dade County, where officials reported a dramatic increase in the horse meat market. Activists at the time said the meat can cost anywhere from $10 to $20 a pound.
Earlier this month, authorities in Palm Beach County raided three slaughterhouses and arrested six people in connection with the illegal slaughter and sale of horses. And in July, a three-year-old competitive show horse named Smart Amanda Whiz was found slaughtered for its meat.
“It’s actually more common than you think,” said South Florida SPCA spokeswoman Laurie Waggoner, who noted that Phedras de Blondel’s killing was unique because it was so brazen. “There’s a lot of horses that we never know about. [Authorities] find a couple of carcasses every month.”
Florida is home not just to a diverse population — generating demand for horse meat — but also a high concentration of horses, Waggoner said.
“Horses are very expensive to keep,” she noted; often it’s abandoned horses or those sold cheaply that fall victim to slaughter.
Often these horses are slaughtered on the spot, and with the average horse weighing about 1,200 pounds, the haul can be enormous.
As for Phedras de Blondel’s death, “this is not an easy case to solve,” Bristow said. There are no witnesses to the crime, which could have taken place anytime overnight Saturday into Sunday morning. Officials have no suspects and would consider burglary, grand theft and animal cruelty felony charges.
Steve Stephens told the Herald that the horse may have been targeted because of its size.
“These people came to butcher this horse out,” Stephens told the paper. “They didn’t just come with those sharp knives for nothing. They had all intentions of doing what they did. They knew what they were going to do.”