TRF: No Easy Solutions

by | 03.18.2011 | 10:41am

Four years ago, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation was in turmoil. The country's oldest and largest racehorse retirement charity was in poor financial shape because of decisions that allowed its herd of mostly unadoptable Thoroughbreds to swell from under 300 in 2001 to over 1,250 in 2005.

A half-dozen or more members of the TRF's board of directors quit, and one was thrown off. Ex-board members were poisoning the organization through calls to the news media undermining remaining board members and management. One former TRF president told an editor at Blood-Horse magazine he bailed because the organization would soon be bankrupt.

It was troubling for me to watch, because though I had no affiliation with TRF other than having made a donation to the organization, I felt its work and mission were important to the Thoroughbred industry. So after hearing about all of its problems, I reached out to TRF founder Monique Koehler to see if there was anything I could do to help. I was elected to the TRF board of directors to fill one of the many vacancies created by those who bailed out.

Since that time, in 2007, I have been torn between my career role as a journalist chronicling the Thoroughbred industry and my responsibility to the TRF. I have said or written little about the organization publicly, but now, in light of the damning allegations by Joe Drape in today's New York Times, I feel compelled to speak out. (Click here to read the New York Times article).

These are my own personal views and opinions and do not represent those of the TRF.

The allegations made by Drape – which I dispute as largely false and reckless — are painful. Though several TRF board members, in particular chairman Tom Ludt and president George Grayson (who stepped into the role when a former president resigned suddenly Jan. 17 of this year) have spent countless hours dealing with the issues raised over the past several months, this is not the time or place to get into a “he said/she said” debate over conflicting reports from equine veterinarians on the care of the TRF horses, the motive of the veterinarian that leaked her reports to the New York Times, the competence of some former TRF employees, or the relationship between the executors of Paul Mellon's estate and the TRF.

The accusations are sickening and appalling to me, and I'm sure to everyone who cares about animals. No one affiliated with the TRF condones a single horse being abused or neglected, and in every instance where issues or complaints have been raised, I can say with confidence the TRF acted swiftly to investigate and take appropriate action. I dispute many of the assumptions stated as fact in Drape's article but feel nothing is gained going point by point over those allegations.

From the time of my first board meeting until the present, the TRF has been severely underfunded, relative to the number of horses it cares for. It spends at least 85% of its revenue directly on the care of horses, using the remaining 15% for administration and fundraising (board members are neither paid nor reimbursed for their time or travel expenses).

In 2009, when the economy was at its weakest and charitable giving took a major hit, the TRF lost over $900,000.

Most businesses with excessive inventory would look for ways to reduce that inventory, but while Thoroughbreds may be dispensable to many owners and breeders, they are not to the TRF. Whether it was wise for the TRF board and management to admit so many horses into the program from 2001-05 — we are and were responsible for them.

Contrary to widespread belief and Drape's New York Times article, the TRF does not have $7 million to spend from the endowment left by the late Paul Mellon. According to the terms of the endowment, TRF may spend no more than 5% of that endowment each year, approximately $350,000, about one-tenth of its total operating budget in 2009.

Late last year, the TRF board worked with the Mellon trustees to arrange an inspection of the entire 1,100-horse herd at more than 30 different locations. Any hints of problems TRF received from these inspections were immediately addressed.  However, for reasons unknown, the veterinarian contracted by the Mellon trustees chose not to share her reports with the TRF board but instead with the New York Times.

Some of the findings by the veterinarian contracted by the Mellon trustees were, in fact, contradicted by a second independent veterinarian. Drape was not interested in speaking with that veterinarian or with anyone who has worked on behalf of the TRF with the satellite farm operations to ensure the best care possible for these horses.

In recent months, the executors of the Mellon endowment have refused to meet with the TRF's executive committee to discuss financial issues, have withheld funds from TRF, and directed the TRF board to make decisions that went beyond what I understood the realm of their authority to be, including personnel matters.

It was confounding to me, and I came to the conclusion that the Mellon trustees seemed to have a death wish for the TRF.

So almost exactly four years after the TRF's internal problems came to my attention, the organization faces exactly the same challenges it had then. Too many horses, not enough money, and not enough people willing to act on behalf of retired racehorses.

The challenges of the TRF are merely a symptom of the greater problems the industry has faced and ignored for decades.
I don't think there are any easy solutions.

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