NYC carriage driver accused in horse switch

In this Dec. 31, 2013, file photo, horse-drawn carriages line up waiting for passengers near New York's Central Park. .
In this Dec. 31, 2013, file photo, horse-drawn carriages line up waiting for passengers near New York's Central Park. . AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

NEW YORK – Regulators are investigating allegations that one of New York City’s embattled carriage horse drivers tried to evade industry rules by disguising a 22-year-old horse with a mild breathing ailment as another horse nearly half its age.

City health officials filed an administrative order March 6 accusing driver Frank Luo of altering a hoof identification number so that a draft horse named Ceasar, who was supposed to be resting on a Pennsylvania farm, could work under a license issued to a 12-year-old horse named Carsen.

A Health Department veterinarian questioned the horse’s identity in late January during an inspection at a Manhattan stable, according to records obtained by The Associated Press through a freedom of information request.

READ MORE: Liam Neeson fights to keep horse-drawn carriages in NYC

In the written order, city officials said the vet noticed that while the horse had Carsen’s ID number on its hoof, its “physical characteristics and medical condition was that of the older horse.” Ceasar had a condition called “heaves,” which is similar to asthma, city officials said.

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Luo told The Associated Press Friday that the vet simply got it wrong.

“I did not switch the horses. It’s just very confusing because they look alike,” he said.

Initially, Luo submitted paperwork intended to prove that the horse really was Carsen, including a handwritten note from a Pennsylvania farmer who said Ceasar hadn’t left his farm since July. The city asked for more proof, including a veterinarian’s evaluation of the horse’s age and the condition of its lungs.

Five days later, Luo’s lawyer informed the department that he couldn’t afford to have the horse sitting idle and had shipped him to Pennsylvania and sold him. Ceasar was sold to the same farmer Feb. 11.

“It’s all settled now,” Luo said. He said he would continue to operate his business using other horses.

The sale effectively ended the investigation by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which monitors the horses’ health. But the Department of Consumer Affairs, which regulates the drivers, is still investigating, said spokeswoman Abigail Lootens.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced before taking office that he intended to ban the carriages, saying horses don’t belong on busy Manhattan streets. Carriage operators fought back by opening up their stables to anyone who wanted to check conditions firsthand. In opinion polls, New Yorkers have largely sided with the drivers. Jillian Michaels, a star of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” weight-loss competition, joined an anti-carriage horse rally on the steps of City Hall on Monday.

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Luo’s regulatory problems date to September, when he was cited for working at least two horses without active licenses. He also was accused of working Ceasar for nine days in July when the horse was supposedly in Pennsylvania. City regulations give the horses five weeks of pasture time each year.

Also in September, The Department of Consumer Affairs cited Luo for false advertising, overcharging customers and operating a carriage for more hours than allowed. Luo’s company, the Manhattan Carriage Co., agreed in January to pay a fine and restitution.

In an unrelated incident, a horse Luo was driving in September bolted on 8th Avenue and hit a car. It suffered minor injuries.

Luo told the AP he loves each of his horses and cares for them well. None of the accusations against him involved allegations of mistreatment.

In 2007, the city’s comptroller noted in an audit that health certificates kept for carriage horses sometimes contained physical descriptions that changed from year to year, suggesting they weren’t the same animals. In 2008, a stable owner pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct to resolve allegations that he tried to bribe a city investigator. Carriage owners have denied any subterfuge and maintained that their animals are among the healthiest and most tightly regulated anywhere.