MAY 11, 2006

The horse-drawn carriage -- its velvety banquette seats, the legendary views of Central Park, the clip-clop, clip-clop sound of horseshoes on pavement -- is a venerable city institution, harking back to the simpler days of old New York.

But the same 19th century charm that draws tens of thousands of tourists year-round has critics -- newly emboldened by a series of accidents that have injured horses, drivers and passersby -- who say that yesteryear is exactly where these carriages belong.

"There's a reason horse-drawn carriages don't exist anymore," said Councilman Tony Avella (D-Queens), who has introduced legislation to restrict them to Central Park. "It just perhaps is not the right thing anymore for midtown traffic."

On Friday, a horse being driven from its stable to the park was spooked and bolted, overturning its carriage and injuring the driver of a car on Ninth Avenue. The week before, a frightened horse sideswiped a 71-year-old bicyclist, dislocating his hip. These two accidents, following a more serious crash in January that critically wounded a carriage driver and led to the horse being euthanized, have revived the debate over having horses walking through the middle of Manhattan and led one animal-rights group to call for a boycott.

Yet any argument about horse-drawn cabs inevitably returns to the tradition and romance of them, lined up on Central Park like a scene out of an Edith Wharton novel -- not to mention their appeal to cash-spending tourists who want to have what they see as a quintessential New York experience.

"I saw it on 'Sex and the City,' " said Tine Olsen, 30, of Denmark, after a ride with her friend Lotte Mortensen, 33. "It was nice, except this isn't the love of my life."

The city's 68 horse-drawn carriages, powered in shifts by about 200 horses, spend most hours restricted to Central Park, though they are permitted in the area outside it after 9 p.m. and can go as far as Times Square after 11:30 p.m.

"I do recognize that to a certain extent they are part of Manhattan nightlife, and that's why I recommended that they be restricted instead of an outright ban," Avella said.

But the danger to passersby during the walk from the West Side stables to the park and the alleged mistreatment of the horses make an outright ban necessary, say carriage opponents, who have included Mary Tyler Moore and Alexis Stewart, Martha's daughter.

"If you really care about the horses and you like horses, then you don't want to support this cruel industry. There's enough public safety risks involved in New York City as it is. We don't need this extra one," said Edita Birnkrant, of the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, the group that called for the boycott. "The notion of the romantic thing -- that's just an illusion and once you get past that, there's nothing that justifies the cruelty issue."

Which is 100 percent wrong, said Conor McHugh, who owns a horse and carriage and manages a stable.

"The people who actually use them, they're the ones that spend the time and spend the money making sure they're in good health. I need my horse to be healthy," said McHugh, dressed in a black top hat and speaking with a mild Irish brogue as he waited in a queue of carriages on Central Park South Wednesday afternoon.

"This morning I took a woman from England on a ride with her son in Central Park, who said I was fulfilling a lifelong dream for her," he said. "Could New York survive without horse-drawn carriages? Probably could. But you take away this, you take away that -- and after a while, it's not what it used to be."

Even Lawrence McKittrick, 71, still recovering from being thrown from his bicycle by a horse two weeks ago, said he doesn't mind sharing the road with the carriages.

"Given that the park is for recreation and this is a big thing for tourists, and tourism is a very big part of the New York City budget, if the horses are properly trained and controlled, I have no problem with them," he said. "My bigger problem is with traffic in that section in the park. It's there all day, all day long. With all that traffic, all those horses might get spooked."

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