Getting Heard - by Eric Mitchell

The ongoing New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association election has become a de facto national referendum on what owners and trainers expect from their representative associations.

What threw this election into the national spotlight was an “Open Letter to Horsemen” from five of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association member organizations—Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—outlining the importance of re-electing incumbent Rick Violette Jr. as president of the New York THA. The 800-word letter was sent by snail mail and distributed by e-mail Oct. 28 and Oct. 29.
“While we might not normally involve ourselves in a local election, the consequences of this election have the potential, like no other, to affect all horsemen and we feel compelled to speak,” the letter states.

Violette’s competitor in the first contested race for NYTHA president in nine years is West Point Thoroughbreds founder Terry Finley, who has said in part he is seeking the office to make the association more engaged with its members and to make its actions more transparent. A position essay from each candidate was published in the Oct. 18 issue of The Blood-Horse (pages 37-38).

The National THA got involved in the New York election because the president of the New York branch has historically served as president of the national organization, according to Salvatore DeBunda, president of the Pennsylvania THA. DeBunda said he initiated the conference call that resulted in the letter to THA members.

“The New York president serving as the national president has been the history because they can speak with the strongest voice,” said DeBunda. “This letter was in support of Rick, not in opposition to Terry. It is supporting a person who has been president of the THA for a long time and his leadership on the issues.”

Certainly a hot-button issue in the New York election with many THA executives is the race-day use of furosemide (Salix, or Lasix). Violette has been a steadfast and vocal supporter of race-day furosemide while Finley has been more open to putting U.S. racing on par with other major international racing countries by limiting the use of the anti-bleeding medication.

“I am personally in favor of Lasix, and I know others feel strongly about the Lasix issue,” said DeBunda.

But the THA letter has spawned debate on an entirely different issue—whether the executives in charge of some horsemen’s organizations are truly speaking for their members, whether they are national outfits representing their affiliates or state organizations representing the grassroots.

Case in point: Michael Gorham, who is president of the Delaware THA, did not endorse the letter supporting Violette. The letter, however, included Gorham’s signature and the Delaware THA logo.

“We had a conference call and talked about it,” Gorham said. “I had some questions about whether it is right for any THA members to support a candidate in another election.”

Drafts of the letter were reportedly circulated to all THA presidents and executive directors by Maryland THA executive director David Richardson. DeBunda said some executives confirmed support and others were silent. He said Gorham didn’t respond, which was interpreted as support.

“I never saw the letter, and they never got an OK from me,” Gorham said. “Maybe this is standard policy to do whatever they want.”

Gorham followed up with Richardson, who told Gorham he thought everyone had been in agreement, then apologized.

For Gorham—the signature mistake aside—the letter was inappropriate. “I’m not against Terry or Rick,” he said. “I’m in favor of a fair election. I don’t think as a group we need to be involved; this is an ethics thing.”

Gorham’s comments reflect the attitude of several state THA board members, who were upset these organizations took action without  consulting their boards. National THA CEO and chief counsel Alan Foreman said in an e-mail he had recused himself from any involvement in the NYTHA election. He said he was not involved with the letter and could not comment.

DeBunda insists the presidents and directors acted appropriately.

“As president, I am the representative for Pennsylvania THA,” he said. “I’ve run unopposed, so I feel like there is support for what I do. We were merely pointing out a relationship that is important to the THA.”

DeBunda also defended the letter as primarily informational because it was not distributed directly to NYTHA members. Then DeBunda noted that he is licensed in New York and eligible to vote. Also, the final sentence of the endorsement letter states: “...we wholeheartedly and without reservation ask you to show your support by casting your ballot for Rick Violette and the incumbent NYTHA directors.”

A strong, effective organization requires members who are invested and engaged. With all the challenges racing faces, here’s hoping the NYTHA election—regardless of the outcome—opens the eyes of owners and trainers about the associations to which they belong nationwide. Demand accountability, demand equity, and demand to be heard.



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