MTHA election: Two camps see different circumstances
by Frank Vespe
These days, elections often end up being choices between people who – rhetorically at any rate – seem to inhabit different worlds altogether.
So it is with the upcoming Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association election, in which the organization’s members will essentially choose between a status quo, “all is well” ticket – 14 of the 15 current board members are seeking reelection – and an insurgent, “throw ‘em all out” slate.
Ballots were mailed to members licensed in 2017 on July 17 and must be returned by August 21. Members elect all 15 board slots every three years, with at least seven owners and at least seven trainers in the mix.
The contenders for the trainer slots include six incumbents and eight others seeking to join the board. Those eight include four of the eight winningest trainers at Laurel Park this year. Among would-be owner-board members are eight incumbents and seven seeking to join.
At issue, in the broadest sense: who does, and should, represent Maryland horsemen?
Here, part 1 of 2 on the election stakes and candidates.
“PEOPLE THAT DEPEND ON MARYLAND RACING”
“My main goal is, I want people on the board that depend on Maryland racing for their racing business,” said Jerry Robb. Robb, a longtime Maryland trainer and former MTHA board member, has been among the most vocal of those seeking change and Is seeking to join the board in this election.
“It has become clear we need to organize the trainers to be heard, and take a strong stance participating in the policy making process,” Robb wrote in February on the Maryland Thoroughbred Trainers Facebook page, bemoaning what he perceived as too many board members too closely aligned with the Maryland Horse Breeders’ Association or with “very strong ties to track management.”
“The races don’t run without the claiming trainers,” added trainer Kieron Magee, also seeking to join the board. “The claiming races are the nuts and bolts of racing, and we get no representation.”
Magee has won more races at Laurel Park this year than any other trainer; in seventh place on that list is Hugh McMahon.
“The racing industry in Maryland is probably 80 percent claiming,” McMahon agreed. “The board representation now doesn’t have the experience in the claiming business.”
Not everyone sees it that way, though. Larry Johnson, an incumbent board member who in 2014 was the driving force behind a reformist wave that brought a half-dozen new members to the board, said that the case for the incumbents is a simple one: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
He added, “The notion that there needs to be claiming trainer representation, I really don’t understand. Would it change the condition book or the claiming rules?”
Those two items, in fact, are exactly what Robb, McMahon, and Magee want to change.
OF CONDITION BOOKS AND CLAIMING RULES
To them, and others, their lack of a voice manifests itself through a claiming rule which they say hurts their business – and the industry’s efforts to lure new owners — and a condition book that McMahon called “a grievous thing.”
Taken together, they say, the rule – which requires claimed horses to run back for no less than 125 percent of the claiming price for a period of 30 days after being claimed – along with Maryland’s typical three-day race week, and the turf-heavy condition book have created a situation in which, McMahon said, he tells clients looking to claim a horse, “Don’t look in Maryland.”
“The biggest problem people have is finding a race for their horse,” said Robb. “It’s harder now to get in a race than to win a race.”
He’s been beating the drum about issues with the condition book for the last couple of years. He points to days like July 22 – when the 10-race card is slated to include eight turf races, a stake on the dirt, and a dirt race for beaten $10,000 claimers – and July 16, when the nine-race card featured six turf races and three bottom-level claiming races on the dirt, as examples of the problem.
In sum, he points out, the number of turf starters has risen from 17.7 percent of all starters at Laurel Park in 2012 to 37.5 percent in 2016. What’s left on most cards is filled out by bottom maidens and low-level claimers on the dirt, leaving mid-priced claimers and better allowance horses out in the cold.
What’s more, he points out, in an ordinary day’s race card at Laurel, the track will choose the nine or so races it uses from among 14 races in the condition book and eight or nine extras on the overnight, making it hard to predict which races will actually go. And there have been plentiful concerns that frequent changes to the condition book make it hard to know whether a race will be around from book to book.
McMahon agreed. “A trainer cannon train around a transient condition book,” he said.
Both men said that they believe the MTHA hasn’t done enough to represent horsemen’s interests in this regard.
“We seemed liked we were an inconvenience and we had no business there,” Robb wrote on Facebook, recalling an MTHA meeting at which he and others raised these concerns to no avail.
But Johnson, who said he has 25 horses in training, said that the issues regarding which races go and which do not apply to trainers and owners across the board, not just to claiming trainers.
“I’ll compare how many of my horses don’t get into a race because it doesn’t fill with anybody’s,” he said. “It’s frustrating as hell. In any given week, I’ll probably have three horses running in race which doesn’t really fit them.”
“LOOK WHERE WE ARE TODAY”
But he and trainer Tim Keefe, who is currently the president of the MTHA and is also running for reelection to the board, point out that there’s only so much the MTHA can do about the condition book; in the end, it’s the track that writes the book and chooses the races.
“I agree with a lot of criticism of the condition book,” he said. “It isn’t just claiming horses that have a hard time getting in.”
But, he said, he believes the book – back in the hands of racing secretary Georganne Hale after some fits and starts – is “now a better book.”
Likewise with the claiming rule. The issue with the rule, claiming trainers say, is that, with their flexibility to enter a horse where they see fit reduced, a horse may end up on the sidelines for 45 or 60 days waiting for a race that suits. That puts a strain – both financially and in terms of interest – on owners, particularly on smaller stables. The Maryland Racing Commission adopted the rule in 2013 as one of several responses to a rise in equine fatalities in the state.
“I’d like to get the claiming rules back to where they were,” Magee said. “I think we should be able to run horses back wherever we want to run them. You put up the money and take the gamble.”
In fact, earlier this year the MTHA did adopt a resolution calling for the number of days the rule applies to be reduced from 30 to 20. Critics says its advocacy of the new proposal has been spotty and half-hearted.
But Keefe pointed out that in the end, all the MTHA can do is recommend the change. Changing the rule, he said, “is the Maryland Racing Commission’s job.”
And, while Robb criticized the incumbent board for its perceived coziness with track management and the state’s breeders, both Keefe and Johnson point to those relationships as critical, particularly in the industry’s work in Annapolis to protect the industry’s share of slots revenue.
“There’s been criticism of our relationship with management,” Keefe said. “You need to have a good relationship with management. It’s not saying the MTHA says ‘yes’ to everything they ask us for.”
“Think back five years ago,” Johnson suggested. “We had a track ownership that wasn’t speaking to the MTHA, they were threatening a 40-day meet, the Maryland breeding program was struggling, the notion of Maryland racing being nationally prominent was inconceivable. Look where we are today.”
“Votes are about directions,” Johnson said, and that’s surely true. And the question MTHA members will have to wrestle with as they cast their ballots is how they perceive the direction of the organization, and the industry in the state.
- Christine Bricker (incumbent)
- Edward Buxbaum
- Ellen Charles (incumbent)
- Daniel Eubanks
- Linda Gaudet (incumbent)
- JoAnn Hayden (incumbent)
- Michael Horning (incumbent)
- Larry Johnson (incumbent)
- Mark Lapidus
- Robert Manfuso (incumbent)
- Stewart Nickel
- Stephen O’Neill
- Charles “Chip” Reed (incumbent)
- Lawrence Smith
- Louis Ulman
- Ferris Allen (incumbent)
- Dale Capuano (incumbent)
- Claudio Gonzalez
- Tim Keefe (incumbent)
- Kieron Magee
- Jonathan Maldonado
- Hugh McMahon
- Graham Motion (incumbent)
- Gina Rosenthal
- John Jerry Robb
- Phil Schoenthal
- Mark Shuman
- Mike Trombetta (incumbent)
- Katy Voss (incumbent)