Day At The Track

John Brennan lashes out at USTA & Saratoga

06:15 AM 19 Feb 2014 NZDT
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John Brennan
USTA District 12 Director John Brennan

When I was first elected as a United States Trotting Association (USTA) membership director in 1998, I thought that it was important to advance the interests of harness racing horsemen in every way possible.

Electronic Eligibility was just the first of many helpful programs we were able to achieve.  Yet, believe it or not, something as obviously essential as going paperless was met with much criticism and resistance. From that initial experience, I learned that very little USTA. business gets accomplished quickly; and rarely in unanimous fashion.

As with any large, industry-wide association, there are competing interests. 2/3s of our Board is made up of membership, or horsemen, directors, and 1/3 are track directors. Even within these groupings, on many issues there are smaller factions that see things differently than others.

Of course, the voicing of varied opinions is a good thing. When a different viewpoint on a subject is expressed, it allows for directors to pause and think about a matter in a light that they might not have previously considered.

Unfortunately though, much never gets to the pause and think stage with 61 directors, because many decisions affecting members are being made at an executive level. Rather than the product of full and open deliberation, these pronouncements are decided behind closed doors by a handful of individuals who often look at things in lockstep fashion. Worse still, their edicts are often completely inconsistent, and smack of an attitude of pure track bias.

For those of you who may not be aware, your Association executives in Columbus, Ohio have recently denied the membership application of a veteran horseman who maintains racing licenses in multiple U.S. jurisdictions, as well as in Canada. The reason for the denial? Well, you’ll just have to guess, because his refusal notice doesn’t even state why he was refused. Strangely for me, if numerous Racing Commissions deem him to have the requisite character and fitness to compete in pari-mutuel harness racing, why would our USTA exclude him? One could only guess that he violated some rule of our Association. Or is it really our Association? And what was the rule violation?

Compare this to the longstanding state of affairs with a track member, Saratoga Raceway, who was in open and notorious violation of USTA rules. Those rules that we voted on and passed mandate that tracks maintain minimum medical insurance for drivers equal to the average daily purse account raced for during the previous calendar year. At Saratoga, the minimum medical coverage should have been in the six-figure range. Yet, for several years, Saratoga had maintained only a paltry $5,000 coverage for its drivers; a blatant violation of the U.S.T.A own rules.

Despite being out of compliance for several years, the USTA. would not revoke the track’s membership. Because the USTA refused to act against the track member who was in violation of the USTA rule, the horsemen were forced to make concessions to the track to up that insurance Nice deal for a track, but a lousy one for horsemen members who found themselves left in the lurch because the USTA would not enforce a rule against a track member. Some directors rightly call the USTA the United States Track Association.

So, while denying membership to horsemen for no explicit reason, the executives in Columbus flatly refused to revoke the track membership of Saratoga Raceway, despite its clear and undeniable violation of an important Association rule.

This type of prejudice towards horsemen and favoritism towards racetracks is not simply unjust; it’s downright dangerous. Think about the tragic incident involving Anthony Coletta last November. Think about the drivers injured as a result of the starting gate skid at Freehold Raceway in January. Medical insurance isn’t important until, of course, you desperately need it.

I am damn mad about the dual treatment of a clearly wrongdoing track member of the USTA and the risk to horsemen racing there, while the USTA turned its back on such violation for years but continues to penalize horsemen who have licenses in many states.

Is the USTA carrying water for track operators who want the industry to think that they have integrity at their place and no one else does, while their "proof”, or the lack of it, is not sufficient for a state to suspend a horsemen's credential in that state?

What additional exposure does the USTA have when, God forbid, a horrible accident befalls a horseman at a track with less than the minimum insurance because the USTA has not enforced its own rule? It may be an increase in your dues that pays for this failure when their lawyers come seeking recourse.

This ‘tale of two cities’ has to stop. As a horsemen’s director, along with others, our top priority right now is to change how the decision making process at the U.S.T.A. works. When a state licenses a member, unless the state suspends him he/ she should have full membership in the USTA. When he violates a state rule he should suffer a loss of our USTA credential. The USTA is wasting a lot of time, effort and money in an area that clearly belongs to state licensing agencies. Enough is enough.  Let's stop having track operators use their influence at the USTA to make villains out of licensed horsemen.

Respectfully, JOHN BRENNAN

John Brennan is chairman of USTA District 12. A native of Rockaway Beach, N.Y., Brennan finished school in 1968 and worked as a steamfitter for four years before he began his career in harness racing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He has been training horses for more than 30 years, racing stables in New York and New Jersey. He won the 1995 Merrie Annabelle with Missy Will Do It. Was previously part-owner and trainer of Sugar Trader, winner of the 2003 Yonkers Trot and runner-up in the 2003 Hambletonian. He has been on the board of the SBOA of NY for more than 20 years, an HHI delegate for more than 15 years, and a USTA director for 13 years. He is currently the horsemen's representative at Yonkers Raceway.

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Editor's Note: HARNESSLINK website is pleased to present appropriate viewpoints and opinions from around the Harness Racing industry.  The views contained in these “op-ed” pieces are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of HARNESSLINK.

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