Contentious New York THA Election Includes Questionable Endorsement

by | 11.04.2014 | 5:50pm
Terry Finley (left) and Rick Violette

Presidents of five state divisions of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, collectively calling themselves a Philadelphia-based “Coalition of Horsemen,” have endorsed trainer Rick Violette over West Point Thoroughbred founder Terry Finley in a hotly contested election for president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

In a widely distributed email using the logos of the Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania affiliates of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, the coalition of presidents from those groups concluded with this statement about Violette, who was first elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2011, both times without opposition: “For all he has done for all horsemen, all of our organizations throughout the country and for racing, we wholeheartedly and without reservation ask you to show your support and appreciation by casting your ballot for Rick Violette and the incumbent NYTHA directors.”

The organizations represent owners and trainers in their respective states in negotiating purse contracts and other matters. Violette also serves as president of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which consists of the six affiliates.

But one of the five presidents whose signature is on the letter, Mike Gorham from the Delaware THA, said he never saw, approved of, or signed the letter. And he didn't give permission to use the DTHA logo.

So the unanimous endorsement among the five THA organizations outside of New York wasn't unanimous. And none of the presidents got approval from their memberships or boards of directors  to use the organization's logo or to make the endorsements on behalf of the affiliate THA.

“I knew it was something in the works,” Gorham said about the letter. “I was on a conference call and they were talking about it. My comment was that it wasn't a proper thing to do, being the national group backing one guy over another. They had my signature on file but I never okayed my signature on that letter. I never even saw it.”

Gorham said his board of directors never discussed or approved the endorsement or use of the logo.

Other presidents said they took the action on their own, without getting approval from their board of directors or membership to endorse Violette and the incumbent NYTHA board candidates.

“The Pennsylvania board did not vote,” said PTHA president Salvatore DeBunda, whose Archer & Greiner law firm address in Philadelphia was used as the address for the Coalition of Horsemen. “We felt we had enough people that were supportive.”

DeBunda, who said he initiated the conference call, said he “assumed somewhere along the line” that Gorham saw the letter.

The email was distributed by the Bellevue Communications Group of Philadelphia, a firm that lists the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association among its clients.

In other words, the five horsemen's organizations hired a public relations firm to defeat individuals who are members of the New York THA and are trying to serve that organization in a board or officer position. The groups sent their membership lists to Bellevue for distribution of the letter of support, according to DeBunda.

Finley previously asked for a membership list and was told he would not be given access to it.

Why did some of the local presidents take this unprecedented step?

“My sources tell me (Finley's) intentions are to fire Alan Foreman (counsel to the New York THA and chairman of the national THA),” said Mike Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. Campbell was one of those who said he did not have express permission from the ITHA board or membership to use the non-profit organization's logo to endorse a candidate in another state.

“I talked to Terry and I asked him what his position was on race-day medication, and he hemmed and hawed on his position on Lasix,” said Campbell. “I'm a longtime horseman. I support the science. My background tells me if we modify the Lasix rule, many, many horses and horsemen will be out of business. I'm not supporting anything or anybody that cannot say they support the use of Lasix.”

John Forbes, president of the New Jersey THA, said, “All of us feel Rick has done a very good job in New York and wanted to convey that to anyone trying to make a decision about who would be a good representative. It's sufficient to say something seems to be afoot. When a guy has done a great job representing the industry and has accomplished as much as Rick Violette has, I question the motive of anyone who suggests he's been incompetent or ineffective. I question their motive.”

Forbes said his board discussed and supported the idea of endorsing candidates in another state but took no official vote.

Tim Keefe, president of the Maryland THA, could not be reached. David Richardson, executive director of the MTHA said, “It didn't come before the full board but Tim is the authorized representative to operate on its behalf. The board meets (Wednesday) evening and will address the topic.”

This wasn't the first effort to block Finley from becoming president of the New York THA.

Shortly after Finley first expressed his desire to run for president of the New York THA, he received a letter dated Sept. 20 from NYTHA executive director Jim Gallagher, who wrote  that Finley's ownership interest in an upstate New York feed company “would present a direct conflict (of interest) as specified in the bylaws.” The bylaws say, in part, that no candidate for president or director may “be the owner of a beneficial interest in a business operated at a racetrack.”

Finley responded in writing by saying the bylaw would disqualify Violette and every trainer on the board because each trainer operates a business at the track. He referenced another board member who operated a vanning company. The nominating committee backed off on its conflict of interest claim.

Prior to receiving the “conflict of interest” letter Finley met with NYTHA's general counsel Alan Foreman, a member of the organization's election committee.

“Terry Finley asked to meet with me in Saratoga on Aug. 8,” Foreman said in an email to the Paulick Report. “Our meeting was a one-sided conversation. Without going into details, he told me what he has stated in his public statements — that he was running for president, that he was going to win and that he was going to 'clean house' including the 'highly compensated consultants' (me). He told me he had issues with the way elections are conducted and that he wanted an independent third party to handle the election.  I told him that was a Board decision and that I would raise his concerns with the Board.”

Finley recalls the meeting differently.

“I certainly didn't think it was one-sided,” he said. “I thought I was being courteous by sitting down with the legal counsel for an organization that I was interested in serving. It's really beyond comprehension to think that, if I did at that point in time have a desire to fire him, I'd sit down and tell him that. That's a head-scratcher that I'd ask anyone to evaluate.”

The endorsement letter signed by the five THA presidents brought up the issue of Lasix, which the THA addressed in August after more than 25 prominent trainers led by Todd Pletcher and several members of the Hall of Fame came out in favor of a phasing-out of race-day medication. “Rick Violette has been our voice for the divisive issue of race-day medication and the ongoing effort by certain interests in our industry for federal intervention in our sport,” the endorsement letter reads. “Rick has our full support and the overwhelming support of our membership on these issues.”

Except the presidents failed to ask their boards or their membership for an endorsement or the approval to use the organization logos for politicking.

Finley, who said the New York THA leaders have failed in finding a solution to spiraling workers compensation costs and should be more effective in lobbying in the state capital, says the election “absolutely, positively” is not about Lasix.

“For them, it's about keeping the old boys club intact,” he said. “I'd like to think my fellow Thoroughbred owners in the Midlantic are too smart to fall for this unethical behavior.”

Ballots were mailed last week and must be received by close of business Dec. 1. The law firm of Bryan Cave was retained to oversee the election.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article incorrectly identified Alan Foreman as a member of the NYTHA nominating committee. He serves on the election committee and is counsel to the organization.

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