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‘It Was Love at First Sight,’ and So, Before Long, Benny Mason Got Hitched

The New York Times
By Corey Kilgannon - October 9, 2006

Antonio Provenzano snapped two heavy leather reins over the back of his new horse on Saturday night and steered his green carriage into Central Park at Avenue of the Americas and 59th Street.

It was the horse’s first night working in New York City, and as he took a long drink from the water trough there, his leather blinkers blocked the view of the spot nearby where his predecessor, a 20-year-old white mare named Juliet who was hitched to the same green carriage, collapsed to the pavement last month.

“She doesn’t need to know about that,” Mr. Provenzano, 47, said as he steered into the park. He had passengers in the carriage, just as he had three weeks ago when Juliet collapsed, presumably of colic.

Mr. Provenzano had called his veterinarian, who told him to whip the horse to get her up and moving, as a way to rid Juliet of her gas and waste.

But a large crowd of onlookers began yelling at Mr. Provenzano to stop the whipping. A burly man threatened violence, and a police officer threatened arrest. Only after mounted police officers arrived was he allowed to resume the whipping.

Juliet went up and down several times and was transported back to the stable, West Side Livery on 38th Street, where she died several hours later. Officials at the A.S.P.C.A. are still awaiting necropsy results to determine the cause of death.

Mr. Provenzano was stuck with no horse and a pile of debt, between veterinary bills and unpaid rent at the stable. After reading the story in The New York Times, many readers wrote and called in. Some called Mr. Provenzano cruel, but others offered condolences and money for a new horse.

“Everyone wanted to buy me a horse, but the problem was, I only needed one,” said Mr. Provenzano, who supports two sons, is separated from his wife and often sleeps in his green carriage at the stable.

He received smaller donations totaling $750 and two large ones: about $3,000 from Michael Mason, a psychologist from Westchester, and $2,000 from Benjamin Brafman, the high-profile criminal defense lawyer, who has represented Sean Combs and Michael Jackson.

The search for a new work companion took Mr. Provenzano to stables in upstate New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. The horse had to be pretty enough to attract tourists for petting and photographs, strong enough to plod through the park for nine hours straight and calm enough to block out the barrage of city traffic.

He took the horses out on the road to see if they were spooked by traffic, and he looked for hooves strong enough for pavement and potholes. After inspecting more than 20 horses, he had not found a suitable one. Then, driving through Lancaster County, Pa., he saw, off in a field, behind a tree, a horse with a light mane.

“At first, I just saw blond hair,” he said. “I thought it was a woman. I told my friend to stop.”

It turned out to be a handsome 10-year-old Belgium gelding with a chestnut coat and a price of $3,800. Mr. Provenzano hitched him to a carriage and test-drove him on the main road, where he seemed impervious to traffic.

“It was love at first sight,” Mr. Provenzano said.

In tribute to his main benefactors, he named the horse Benny Mason. Mr. Provenzano brought him to Manhattan and led him to the vacant third-floor stall — Juliet’s old spot. A newcomer to New York City, he now had a window looking out on Midtown skyscrapers. A veterinarian checked Benny out. Mr. Provenzano got the proper licensing with the city’s Departments of Health and Mental Hygiene and of Consumer Affairs. Benny was shod with special nickel-plated shoes for asphalt, and Mr. Provenzano burned into his front left hoof the number 3122, the horse’s registration number with the city.

Benny performed like a champ on Saturday night. After five fares, Mr. Provenzano had taken in about $200. On the park’s carriage paths, Benny was unable to settle into the grooves worn from hooves and narrow wheels, but he remained oblivious to all the urban distractions — the taxi horns, ambulance sirens, the flash from tourist cameras, and even the small, fluffy white dogs barking sharply at him on 59th Street. He seemed not to notice the fancy hotel doormen, or the homeless men sleeping on park benches.

Dr. Mason, who keeps several horses on his property in Briarcliff Manor, said he had helped Mr. Provenzano because he had a horse die last winter.

He and his wife, Linda, and their son, Ian, 9, took an instant liking to the plainspoken urban horseman. The couple took him out to dinner, and he cooked Italian meals for them at their spacious home, where they began putting him up.

As for Mr. Brafman, having read about Mr. Provenzano’s misfortune, he wanted to help him get on his feet.

“These carriage horses in Central Park are an integral part of the city and I wondered, ‘Who are these people who drive these horses?’ ” Mr. Brafman said. “I can write a check and restore this man’s entire livelihood. Besides, how many Orthodox Jewish criminal defense lawyers in New York have a carriage horse in Central Park named after them?”

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