I am convinced that when Jackie "The Jerk" McConnell appears in U.S. District Court today in Chattanooga, he will do so as perhaps the most despised man in the history of the state of Tennessee. A heart-wrenching video of the despicable McConnell cruelly beating a horse in its face with an electric cattle prod has been shown repeatedly since Wednesday night and has appeared in countless newspapers since it made its debut on ABC's "Nightline" news show.
I am also convinced that the great majority of those who own and appreciate the beautiful horses have finally had enough of vermin like Jackie the Jerk. Since a story I wrote appeared on chattanoogan.com Sunday, I've gotten an avalanche of email from good and solid horse people and, while not one has defended the atrocities that have plagued the walking horse industry for decades, the majority have begged for the sport to be cleaned up once and for all.
Believe it or not, that is still a long way off.
Yesterday it was feared a "plea deal" filed in U.S. District court on May 5 - two weeks before the Humane Society's scathing video became available - will dismiss all but one of the of the 48 counts against McConnell today and that is tragic. In the past 30 years he has been suspended no less than 13 times and - at the time the video was taken - the Collierville scofflaw was under a five-year suspension by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.
Further, until Governor Bill Haslam signs legislation that makes animal abuse a felony, Jackie the Jerk will presumably plead guilty to just one misdemeanor in Federal court today, admitting he violated the Horse Protection Act, and - in theory - once again giggle at the ridiculous attempts to rein in those like him who will stop at literally nothing to bring a Grand Champion to Shelbyville as Jackie the Jerk did in 1997.
Granted, no legal action has yet been suggested over the graphic evidence in the "Nightline" tape. McConnell's appearance today stems from a Federal Grand Jury finding in February, but when the charges were announced against McConnell and three of his employees in Chattanooga, the Federal District Attorney in Fayette County soon raided McConnell's stables in Collierville. As a result, McConnell and his henchmen were charged with 15 more counts in Fayette County and they will appear in court there in June.
In its most recent session, the Tennessee legislature sent a bill changing animal cruelty to a felony to Governor Bill Haslam, but the deadline was yesterday.
More troubling is the fact the walking horse industry has done precious little to police itself. The Tennessee Walking Horse Trainers Association had to know of Jackie The Jerk's repeated suspensions and probations over a 30-year span, but still allowed him to be a member until the nauseating Nightline video forced "an emergency phone call" to finally oust McConnell.
Shelbyville officials were also well-aware McConnell was under the rive-year suspension order but, according to the Humane Society's Keith Dane, the Collierville cheater was unexplainably allowed to show horses several times last year.
Such revelations are absolutely reprehensible to anyone of sound mind and honest heart and flie directly in the face of claims the walking horse industry has cleaned up. Further, one horseman wrote that when government inspectors pronounced McConnell's horse as healthy and should be returned to him, it was a savage act in itself.
Another said, "When a horse in beaten so badly it can't stand up, it is traumatized. These horses will never, ever trust another human again .... People who say it (the practice of soring) is cleaned up are liars. There is no excuse for abusing animals and I hope they run (McConnell) out of the business."
A lady from North Carolina wrote that soring is still obvious every year at the N.C. state fair. "Watch the padded horses try to canter - a couple of 'licks' and they are done, used up. This is horrible to watch and everybody knows what's going on."
She informed me, "There is a long line of blame here, from the lawmakers who won't step up and make it a felony, to the trainers who still do the soring, to the owners who allow it (and request it), to the judges that pen the horses. If a judge won't pen a horse, there is no reason to sore. That said, a judge has the duty to pen what is in front of him but - let's get real - if the horse is in bad image don't pen him, and if you can't take the heat from the spectators, you don't need to be judging."
A veteran horsewoman from California who has ridden all kinds of horses from polo ponies to endurance racing to dressage, suggested "doing away with the big shows. It only encourages horrific abuse" but a better notion came from Murfreesboro, pointing to a fast-growing association that uses Xrays, thermal testing and flat shoes to guarantee there is no cheating or abuse.
Jackie the Jerk will have his day in court today but it will take months, even years, for the walking horse industry to regain its stature. A poll in the Nashville Tennessean showed more people will boycott this year's show in August than will attend and, while there are many more rules-abiding enthusiasts than not, the damage is immense.