Wednesday, December 6, 2017

What Do the NYTHA Election Results Mean?

The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NYTHA) election results are in, and, in my view, it's a definitely mixed bag. With NYTHA President Rick Violette stepping down, after 25 years on the Board of Directors and nearly a decade as President, there was bound to be a change of direction, but the results overall, including the change in owner and trainer spots on the Board, raise some troubling questions.

Replacing Rick as President, having run unopposed, is Joe Appelbaum, who joined the NYTHA Board as an owner-director in 2014. Joe, who runs the Off the Hook pinhooking and racing operation, has lots of energy and has been a fast learner in his first term on the Board. He'll certainly do what he can, and he's been working hard to find solutions for the outrageously expensive workers compensation premiums that make New York the highest-cost state in the country for owners and trainers. But there will inevitably be a steep learning curve.

In the five trainer slots, Pat Kelly and Jimmy Ferraro were voted out, to be replaced by John Kimmel and George Weaver. Linda Rice, Rick Schosberg and Leah Gyarmati were re-elected. Kimmel, with his veterinary background, will be a great addition to the Board. But Pat Kelly's absence will be felt, especially because of his deep web of connections on the backstretch. Pat has been the guy to go to to solve small problems involving backstretch workers, toiling away in obscurity on the Backstretch Violations Panel, staying in touch with the stewards and the NYRA folks who had direct responsibility for what happens on the backstretch. The voters, collectively, made a mistake by not retaining his expertise.

As for the owner slots on the NYTHA Board, again, there was a loss of expertise. Mike Shanley, a former legislative staffer in Albany with a wide range of government contacts, was voted out, and the new Board includes West Point Thoroughbreds' Terry Finley and two of his co-owners, Bob Masiello and former race-caller Tom Durkin. Tina Bond and Jack Brothers were the two incumbent owner-directors to be re-elected.

I often disagreed with Mike Shanley, and thought he was frequently too cautious in confronting NYRA, but his departure, combined with that of Rick Violette, means that NYTHA has lost some 50 years worth of experience on dealing with Albany. Remember that, unlike the situation in all other states, NYTHA has no statutory right to negotiate a contract with NYRA. Elsewhere, horsemen can cut off a track's simulcast signal if they fail to reach agreement with track management on the number of racing days, contributions to the purse account from handle and other relevant issues. In New York, thanks to the lobbying efforts of the Jockey Club grandees some 30 years ago, that right doesn't exist. As a result, issues that would be decided in contract negotiations in other states are, in New York, settled by legislation in Albany. Under Rick's leadership, NYTHA achieved a lot of success there, especially in locking in a significant portion of slot-machine revenues for purses and in getting NYTHA a seat on the "new NYRA" Board of Directors. Future battles in Albany will need to be waged without that accumulated expertise.

Moreover, the election of Terry Finley and his two co-owners (Masiello owns a number of horses in partnership with West Point, and Durkin owns a share of Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming) worries me. In Terry's last stint on the NYTHA Board, as an owner-director from 2011 through 2014, he talked a lot about getting more involvement in NYTHA from owners, but produced few results; tellingly, he refused even to provide the names and addresses of his own West Point partners to NYTHA so they could be added to the organization's email list. And then, when he narrowly lost the presidency to Rick in the 2014 election, he first verbally assured Rick that he wouldn't challenge the results, but later reneged on that commitment and embarked on a legal challenge, ultimately dismissed in the courts, that cost the organization more than $200,000. I just can't get over seeing that as a commitment not to NYTHA as an organization, but to the cause of Terry Finley.

I don't know Bob Masiello. I do know Tom Durkin, and I admire his commitment to the welfare of backstretch workers, reflected in his longtime membership on the Board of the Backstretch Employee Service Team (BEST). But the interests of horsepeople often require a willingness to stand up and fight, especially to fight against the suits with little racing acumen who run NYRA these days. I'm just not sure that Terry and his co-owners are up to the task.

A final thought: when I joined the NYTHA Board back in 2002, Linda Rice was the only woman member. Now, there's a better gender balance, with three of the 10 Directors being female. But there's still a complete lack of black and Hispanic owners and trainers on the Board. It's not just window-dressing for its own sake. As we've seen in many other fields, inclusion of diverse life experiences and perspectives makes the entire organization stronger, fairer and better. It didn't happen this time around, but perhaps in the next election cycle, NYTHA should reach out to, for example, Rudy Rodriguez, Charlie Baker or Carlos Martin and get a bit more diversity on the ballot.

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