At a felony readiness conference on Tuesday, March 24, reining trainer Mark Arballo pleaded guilty to one felony animal cruelty charge relating to the death of Bella Gunnabe Gifted in September 2013.
Arballo had originally entered a not-guilty plea in the San Diego Superior Court, South County Division, on Oct. 2, 2014. A felony jury trial was on the docket for Monday, May 18. Following the felony readiness conference, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office confirmed the felony jury trial had been vacated and that a sentencing hearing is scheduled for Thursday, May 21 at 1:30 p.m.
“Mark Arballo pled guilty to added count 3, PC597(b) felony animal cruelty,” confirmed San Diego County District Attorney’s Office Communications Director Steve Walker. “The defendant faces up to three years in prison at sentencing.”
Arballo will be required to attend the sentencing hearing, where he could face prison, probation and/or monetary restitution. During the felony readiness conference, the judge indicated if Arballo were sentenced to probation only, a stipulation might possibly be included that would ban him from training horses during that time.
The National Reining Horse Association’s (NRHA) handbook addresses court of law convictions on page 47 and allows the NRHA to discipline a member if there is a conviction of an individual felony, animal abuse or moral turpitude under municipal, county, state or federal law.
Bella Gunnabe Gifted (Colonels Smoking Gun [Gunner] x Bay Brim Hat x Hollywood Return), a 5-year-old reining mare, died while she was in training with Arballo. According to a Fox5 San Diego article, witnesses say Bella Gunnabe Gifted was “tied up with a shank bit” and panicked. The County of San Diego Department of Animal Services ordered a necropsy to determine if abuse was a factor in the mare’s death and turned over their findings to the district attorney’s office.
Arballo operated Arballo Reining Horses at River Valley Ranch in San Diego at the time of the horse’s death, and confirmed to Quarter Horse News last year that Bella Gunnabe Gifted had been in his training program. In June 2013, American Quarter Horse Association records show “Bella” was purchased by Martha Torkington, who owns River Valley Ranch. Torkington has since filed a civil suit in the Superior Court of California, County of San Diego, Central Division against Arballo regarding the mare’s death .
With prior owner and breeder Roxanne Koepsell and former trainer Barbara Williams, Bella Gunnabe Gifted made the finals of several limited-age events. Bella had lifetime earnings of more than $8,185, according to Equi-Stat records.
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