Now that we have gotten beyond the ceaseless advertising and robo-calling of the election season for political offices, a dispute over another election is roiling the waters of the New York racing community. Earlier this month, Rick Violette was re-elected President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, reportedly by a razor-thin margin of 14 votes from over 1,200 cast. His opponent, Terry Finley, is challenging the outcome claiming, among other things, that over 1,000 eligible voters did not receive ballots.
NYTHA is an organization that represents owners and trainers in New York and also administers programs to assist workers on the back stretch. In addition, NYTHA has a non-voting seat on the Board of Directors for the New York Racing Association. Violette is a long-time trainer on the New York circuit. Finley is the founder and president of West Point Thoroughbreds that markets and manages racing partnerships.
The election was important, particularly in light of the fact that NYRA must come up with a reorganization plan by April to return the organization to private control from its current structure as one controlled by New York’s state government. While there are several owners on the NYRA Board, Violette is the only trainer and the sole member with a designated constituency to represent.
What first caught my attention about this election, however, was a level of personal invective coming from the Finley camp. This is from his campaign position statement:
What matters is having a board and members not duped into believing the “Lasix issue” is the only important matter on the table — this is NOT a single issue election – as Rick Violette would like you to believe. We must develop collaborative solutions to issues like race day medication and out of competition testing. It is also important to have an open-minded, rational leader with the right temperament – not one who antagonizes those with opposing views – as Violette does on a regular basis.
Now, Violette unapologetically believes that race-day Lasix should continue to be permitted. (Incidentally, West Point’s thoroughbreds regularly race with the medication.) But Violette is more than a one-trick pony. I have heard him advocate passionately for the interest of New York owners and trainers on a variety of subjects, such as the importance of continuing a program of winter racing in the state.
It is also surprising to see him criticized as not being “rational” with the “right temperament.” I have seen every meeting of the NYRA Board since it started conducting public meetings two years ago. He is one of the few Board members with an historical perspective, and forcefully articulates his views, but always in a respectful and diplomatic manner.
So there must be something else going on here. The essence of Finley’s arguments challenging the election results is a not-so-thinly veiled claim that NYTHA conducted the election in either an incompetent or fraudulent manner – and perhaps both. According to Finley’s appeal, over 1,000 eligible voters were not mailed ballots, and NYTHA’s staff deliberately skewed the mailings to benefit Violette.
The racing media has been reporting Finley’s claims, but the NYTHA leadership has not been commenting. I think the reason for that silence is pretty obvious – NYTHA is holding a hearing on Finley’s claims and any comments by Violette or NYTHA executives would be perceived as prejudicing that process. (I did not attempt to contact NYTHA because they have not been responding to other media sources seeking comments.)
But what is known about the election process indicates that Finley’s assertions should be viewed with a considerable level of skepticism.
Eligibility for NYTHA membership is rather simple – if you owned or trained a horse that raced in New York in the preceding two years, you are “automatically” a member. The NYTHA web site has a brief registration form that provides NYTHA with the information needed to contact you.
So if an owner or trainer does not fill out that form, how does NYTHA mail you a ballot? That’s when it gets complicated. Owners and trainers must be licensed by the state’s Gaming Commission in order to participate in racing. But, according to published reports, the Gaming Commission says it is precluded by law from releasing addresses.
Owners and trainers are, of course, listed in each day’s racing program, but their addresses are not. And many owners – for example, “West Point Thoroughbreds” – do not list the actual names of the individuals making up the partnership.
It is, therefore, difficult to ascertain what Finley thinks NYTHA should have done differently to ensure a fair process. Given what we just described, how can anyone make a good-faith claim that over 1,000 eligible voters were not mailed ballots? Knowing the number of licensed owners and trainers does not get you there because one must also have raced in New York.
One must also wonder what responsibility owners and trainers have for ensuring they are listed as an eligible voter. It is clear that state records cannot be relied on, so an interested voter must take that extra step of registering to vote – an on-line process that takes less than a minute.
NYTHA has announced the process it will follow to adjudicate Finley’s claim, including evidence presented by actual people under oath. Finley will get his chance to make his case. The constant drumbeat criticizing the fairness of the election should wait until he puts real facts – not speculation and rumor – on the table.
UPDATE: Terry Finley has emailed me regarding this post. He stated that he has “received an avalanche of notes from people not getting ballots or were so late they could not submit.” He included two such notes from individuals saying that even after requesting a ballot from NYTHA, it required follow-up before they actually obtained one. In one case, the writer had to Fed Ex the ballot in order to get it in on time.