Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Rick Violette, Ave atque Vale

After 25 years on the Board of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NYTHA), the last 9 years as President, Rick Violette is stepping down. This year, for the first time since the early 1990s Rick's name will not be on the triennial NYTHA election ballot.

My service on the NYTHA Board as an owner-Director overlapped with Rick's for 14 of those 25 years; I also won't be on the NYTHA ballot this year. So it's an appropriate time to take a look back at what Rick, and the rest of us on the Board over those years, have accomplished.

I know some in the business, and especially some in racing's Twittosphere, have decried Rick's positions, and some, including myself, may have been dismayed by his somewhat uninclusive management style, but on balance, I can't imagine that anyone else would have done a better job of steering New York owners and trainers through difficult times.

But first, what exactly is NYTHA? At most tracks in the US, the horsemen's association, by virtue of the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 (for the lawyers, 15 U.S.C. secs. 3001 et seq.), has the right to bargain collectively with the track management over terms and conditions of racing; if no agreement is reached, the horsemen have the legal right to block that track's export of its simulcast signal. That's an important right, since 90% of thoroughbred betting now happens online. In New York, however, NYTHA, despite being the official representative of the horsepeople, doesn't have this bargaining right. Thanks, Jockey Club, for slipping in an amendment that applied only to NYRA and NYTHA. As a result, decisions that get made by collective bargaining at most tracks are made in New York in the political arena, fighting over legislation that determines how many race days there are, how much of betting handle goes into the purse account, etc.

And that's where Rick Violette shone. Rick created relationships with the power brokers in Albany, hired effective lobbyists, and generally kept the wolf away from the door to a greater extent than in many other racing jurisdictions. Where California owners and trainers engaged in mutual self-destruction, and Florida horsemen caved in to the corporate might of Churchill Downs Inc. (at Calder) and then to the Stronach empire, Rick was effective in preserving, and even improving, our position in New York.

Here are a few of the things, in vaguely chronological order, that happened on Rick's watch.

1. Rescuing NYTHA's own finances from years of mismanagement. Rick was installed as President in 2008 when a majority of the NYTHA Board rebelled against then-President Richard Bomze's lackadaisical (to put it mildly) stewardship, which had virtually bankrupted the organization. We adopted a serious budget process (I chaired the NYTHA Finance Committee) and, as a result, the organization is now on a sound financial footing and able to put more than $1 million a year into benevolence work, including support of the BEST backstretch health care program, scholarships for children of backstretch workers and, increasingly, thoroughbred retirement and retraining. We've also been able to finance new equipment to improve the quality of drug testing in New York.

2. Establishing the Jockey Injury Compensation Fund. Rick has been the driving force behind setting up and maintaining the JICF, a separate workers compensation pool that covers exercise riders and jockeys on New York tracks. The JICF saved money for both owners and trainers, previously responsible for covering riders' injury expenses, at the bearable cost of 1% or less of the purse account. Sadly, Rick's continuing efforts to expand the notion of a NYRA-wide workers comp pool to backstretch employees in general has been less successful. Trainers today pay as much as 25% of their payroll in workers comp premiums, a major factor in driving up trainers' day rates, which are now at or above $100 a day for trainers stabled at NYRA tracks. It will be up to Rick's successor, Joe Applebaum (who is running unopposed for President) to bring that effort to fruition.

3. The NYRA bankruptcy. In 2006, NYRA filed for bankruptcy protection. That filing threatened millions of dollars technically in NYRA bank accounts but really owed to horse owners who had won purse money at NYRA tracks. NYTHA took a tough stand in bankruptcy (I was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit we filed) and eventually took that "purse cushion" money out of the reach of NYRA's other creditors and set up a separate trust account, protecting owners large and small. (According to racetrack apochrypha, the issue first came to light when NYRA didn't have enough cash ion hand to honer a high-six-figure withdrawal by Sheikh Mohammed.)

4. Slot machine money. When slots were finally introduced at Aqueduct, years after the authorizing legislation had been approved in Albany, there was considerable uncertainty over how much of their profit would go to the purse account, rewarding owners who had spent years putting on the show while getting back in purses only about half of what it cost to keep their horses in training. Thanks almost entirely to Rick's political work in Albany, the purse account now gets 7.5% of the profit from the Resorts World facility at Aqueduct, which became the most profitable casino operation in North America. As a result, we owners now get back in purses almost 75% of what we pay to keep our horses running, instead of the 50% that we received pre-slots. Such a deal.

5. Lasix. Much to the dismay of animal-rights advocates and other critics, Rick has been a steadfast and effective supporter of the raceday use of Lasix, which reduces fluid levels in horses, reduces weight and lowers blood pressure that, scientific studies generally agree, is a contributory factor in horses' bleeding. When the New York State Wagering and Racing Board (now renamed the Gaming Commission) was seriously considering a proposal to return to the pre-1995 rule that banned raceday Lasix, NYTHA's comprehensive legal submission (I was the principal author) and Rick's forceful advocacy were instrumental in preserving the current rules, at least until a better solution for bleeding appears. While much of the rest of the world disagrees and opposes any raceday drugs, including Lasix, Rick did vigorously and effectively represent his constituency in the Lasix fight.

6. Drug Regulation generally. In addition to being President of NYTHA, Rick has also been President of the national THA, a group of horsemen's associations, mostly in the mid-Atlantic, that have broken away from the hidebound and reflexively anti-change national Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA). The THA groups have been instrumental in promoting better and more uniform drug regulation, which started in their states and is now an ongoing nationwide effort, though not so effective that the industry grandees -- principally folks associated with The Jockey Club -- haven't been kept from drumming up considerable support for their plan for uniform national regulation by the same group that polices Olympic athletes. Like the effort on workers comp for backstretch employees, this is still a work in progress.

7. Backstretch health care. BEST, originally started as a program for drug and alcohol treatment, had by 2010 blossomed into a more comprehensive medical care effort for backstretch workers. But the $1 million that NYRA was putting into the organization wasn't enough to deliver an effective program to all the folks that needed it. NYTHA (in the persons of Rick, former executive director Jim Gallagher and myself) came to the rescue with another $500,000 (nearly $1 million if one includes the NYTHA dental and vision programs and the $12.50 per start that owners paid directly) and we were instrumental in remaking the BEST Board and installing professional management. BEST now runs free walk-in clinics at Belmont and Saratoga, helps pay workers' health insurance premiums, and offers specialist and hospital care for those without insurance. Sadly, that progress is now threatened by NYRA President Chris Kay's actions in cutting NYRA's contributions.

8. Thoroughbred retirement and retraining. As the fate of horses that have reached the end of their racing careers has become more of a social media issue, NYTHA, through its Take2 and Take the Lead programs, has been a leader among horsemen's organizations supporting a decent post-racetrack life for our athletes. Trainer Rick Schosberg and current NYTHA executive director Andy Belfiore have been doing the heavy lifting on these programs, but Rick has been effective in supporting them and, perhaps from his background as a show-horse rider, has been particularly strong in promoting events for thoroughbreds at horse shows.

That's a lot to have accomplished. True, you can't satisfy all of the people all of the time. If you hang out at the Belmont training track, you'll hear complaints about how Rick doesn't listen enough, and if you go to NYTHA Board meetings, you might be dismayed by the length of the opening monologue. But it's a solid record of accomplishment, and whatever one's disagreements with Rick -- and I certainly have some -- his efforts on behalf of owners and trainers over the years deserve some recognition.

Ave atque vale.