Gucci herd reined in by receivers

Nine sleek-coated brood mares graze contentedly in a paddock in West Sussex, foals at their sides. In a neighbouring field, half a dozen muscular colts circle one another playfully. In the distance, the roof of a Tudor manor house is just visible.

This is the estate of the late Paolo Gucci, playboy, fashion tycoon and breeder of prize-winning Arabian horses. In a fortnight, 62 of them will be auctioned off in a grand sale at the stables, near Rusper.

More than 1,000 Arab bloodstock fanatics are expected to attend, including Susan George, the actress, Shirley Watts, wife of the Rolling Stones drummer, and a clutch of sheikhs.

The horses, which are expected to go for up to pounds 50,000 apiece, are in fine fettle, bright-eyed and well-fed. But RSPCA inspectors were greeted by a very different spectacle when they visited the stud farm six months ago. The horses were allegedly in a pitiful state, starving and emaciated, some so weak they could barely walk. It was reported that their stables were squalid, knee deep in manure. One was put down on the spot. The RSPCA removed 11 others to an animal welfare centre.

It was a grim footnote to the saga of intrigue and rivalry that has unfolded since Gucci's death from liver cancer two years ago.

Penny Armstrong, the former stablehand who became his girlfriend, is locked in a bitter legal battle with his second wife, Jenny, for control of the 72-acre estate, Millfield Farm.

Ms Armstrong has been charged with cruelty to 13 horses. She denies it, and is still in residence at Normans, the house where she lived with Gucci and their two young children.

Meanwhile, the receivers, KPMG, are still trying to unravel the tangled web of Gucci's financial affairs. Gucci, black sheep of the family, grandson of the founder of the fashion empire, had declared himself bankrupt in 1994. The horses, KMPG decided, were far and away the most valuable asset. So they brought in a stud manager, Sally O'Neill, to nurse them back to a state where they were fit to be sold.

Ms O'Neill said yesterday that conditions at the farm when she first arrived in January were extremely distressing. "The horses were in an awful state. Their ribs were poking out, their coats were tatty. It's not something I would ever want to see again." Under her supervision, they now look every inch the proud and elegant horses prized by breeders for their intelligence and stamina.

The sale has attracted interest from Canada, Australia and the US, as well as Europe. Terry Court, the auctioneer, says it is a unique opportunity to buy some of the best Arab bloodstock around.

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