Put your money where your mouth is
Paul Fontaine’s letter (April 17, 2020) about the 2020 United States Trotting Association directors’ meeting (full story here) gives me a good chance to recount some important information about the USTA directors and staff, the meeting about which Paul wrote his letter, and what we are doing to prevent the allegations in the recent indictments from ever happening again.
Paul neither mentions nor alludes in his letter to the outbreak in the United States, shortly before our meeting, of an extremely contagious, high-mortality disease, though I certainly hope he is aware of COVID-19 and is protecting his health. About a week before the opening session, we decided to cancel the physical meeting in Columbus and to hold a series of conference calls instead, as provided in our bylaws. Each of the five committee meetings (Racing, Registration, Rules, Finance and Executive) and the Board of Directors’ closing general session were very well attended and conducted efficiently via teleconference.
The reason for this decision was our desire not to expose any of these dedicated directors to risk. Many of those that were planning to attend are in the higher-risk category and public health officials were then urging convention organizers to postpone or cancel their events. Sadly, two of our best have died from COVID-19 complications. A third battled his way through it and immediately returned to the fray, working to solve the multiple problems that harness racing faces.
It must be said, looking back on our cancelled meeting, that our situation today could be far more tragic than it already is. We now know that at least two of our directors were infected. Flying 60 of us into Columbus to mingle with still more people in committees and boardrooms for several days, then flying everyone back to the many places they came from could have multiplied our share of the pandemic exponentially. It might have become a “super-spreader” event, which is even more horrible than it sounds.
Before I turn to what happened at our meeting, which concluded on April 9, let me go back to something that happened on March 30. I received a letter from five important harness racing stakeholders that we posted with my reply on the website on that date (full story here).
The letter asked the USTA to (1) condemn the conduct alleged in the indictments, (2) reactivate our Integrity Hotline, and (3) form a committee to replicate the investigations that led to the indictments. These things have all been done. We will publicize the hotline number within days, as soon as it is active in our telephone system. The committee designated is the newly-reconstituted Executive Committee of the USTA Board of Directors (“Exec”), which as a group is more competent and experienced with industry integrity issues than any other committee I could name.
On March 30, we also posted an editorial about the indictments, in which I discussed keeping the harness racing narrative true, the futility of the federal medication legislation now in its third session of Congress, and three concrete recommendations for making things better: see something say something, financial support for investigation of wrongdoing, and changing the licensing process to require consent to such investigations (full story here).
Getting back to the meeting, there were three contested officer elections. The elected officers automatically join Exec. Meanwhile, our bylaws require the USTA president to appoint a director from each district (there are 12) to Exec. every year. It would have been wrong, because of possible undue influence if second ballots became necessary, to make Exec appointments before election results were announced at the close of balloting, which occurred at our final full-board session on Friday, April 9. Early the following week, I announced the Exec appointments and scheduled a meeting.
Another thing that Paul forgot to mention in his letter is that racing at harness tracks is completely shut down for the first time in history. For the USTA, this means that the income stream instantly becomes a trickle. The USTA’s survival was at stake.
Before the meeting, several USTA staff and the chairman of the Finance Committee got the difficult assignment to devise a plan under which the USTA could get through an unknown number of months of slashed income. The directors discussed the resulting recommendations and accepted them during our meeting. Ten employees (out of 47) received a 12-week furlough that enabled them to retain benefits and receive unemployment compensation. The USTA will pick up the part of their healthcare premiums that they ordinarily would pay. Retained employees took a pay cut. We separated from about a dozen contractors, some of which have been with us with for a generation or more.
I will tell anyone who will listen that the USTA has the finest staff of any horse association in the country. My words cannot adequately express the heartache that went along with the actions that had to be taken at our meeting. But there is more than enough heartache to go around in these times and, out of respect, I will say no more about it here.
During the week after the close of our directors’ meeting, Dr. J (Bridgette S. Jablonsky VMD, executive vice president of Hanover Shoe Farms) showed me a draft letter in which she expressed the pain that standardbred breeders feel when confronted with allegations of horse abuse like those in the indictments. We raise them with care and truly love them, and we will not accept the prospect of sending them to the treatment described in the indictments. This resulted in the $250,000 challenge grant issued in her letter on April 16.
It will be administered by the USTA and is designed to stimulate effective efforts to eradicate any cheating and abuse that remain in our sport, and to help fund those efforts. The first action identified is to fund highly competent investigation of allegations of wrongful conduct. We immediately heard from breeders and operators of horse sales, expressing their readiness to match the grant. Moreover, I have already heard from an eminent member of a leading professional association expressing interest in investigating ways to extend the integrity initiative across the entire American horse industry, not just harness racing. No letter I could write would adequately express the feeling of gratification and encouragement that comes from this immediate surge of support for our work.
The Executive Committee met on April 17 and worked on two things: ways that the USTA can help harness racing interests get back on their feet despite the USTA’s own economic injuries, and implementation of the integrity initiative. Regarding the latter, we began to lay out how to structure the business organization, how to get input from industry stakeholders, and how to effect change among the state racing commissions and other regulatory structures.
The USTA directors and staff appreciate the need to lead through times of trouble, but I’ve got to tell you, it is a great feeling to work on things that will have positive, permanent effects.
We return, now, to Paul Fontaine’s letter. Sometimes, when we feel passion for a cause, we act on emotion. I imagine that we all have erupted with more emotion than forethought when we cared deeply about something, and Paul probably cares deeply about harness racing. Although libelous attacks on the integrity of others are inexcusable, perhaps the rest of Paul’s letter was a cry from the heart rather than a clownish exercise in sarcastic grandstanding.
Accordingly, Paul, I invite you to add $250,000 of your own to the challenge grant, so that matching contributions from others in the industry will give us a $1 million fund to start with; we will need the money, and you can easily afford to do so.
Paul, you have drawn the attention of the entire industry to yourself with your words. Now demonstrate your sincerity with your deeds.
—USTA president Russell Williams / Hanover, PA
More from Fontaine
I note two things in the USTA Chairman’s response to my OP-ED (full story here).
Firstly, he admits he had horses he owns trained by Banca who was arrested by the FBI for alleged criminal activity involving his training of horses.
Secondly, he is correct that during my 30 years on the USTA board I consistently attempted to create a method by which owners would be held responsible for giving horses to trainers who cheat.
The entire rest of his response is obviously only intended to divert attention from the real issue of our crying need for integrity. Amen.
— Paul A. Fontaine / Rhode Island
2020 — The year of turmoil
I remember back to the day as a child the one Christmas when my mother took me to Simpson’s department store to meet with Santa and get my picture taken on his knee. This Christmas was special because this year I asked Santa for a Toronto Maple Leaf jersey and Santa replied “I’ll see what I could do for you.” Well this Christmas Eve I couldn’t sleep a wink because of this Leafs jersey on my mind so When I heard a noise downstairs I had to go look. From halfway down the stairs the noise was my mother putting gifts under the tree and there was my dad eating the cookies and drinking the bottle of Coke I left out for Santa, I was devastated and went back to my room. There was no real Santa.
This pretty well explains my anger when all of these indictments came down in March. I had been in the game all my life and finally pulled out because I was going against what had become the new normal of cheating and designer drugs in harness racing. As angry and dejected as when I found out there was no Santa now in my chosen profession I found out that too was a fallacy. These guys were not horsemen, they were nothing more than a disgruntled worker who after looking after someone’s horses decided that when they put in enough time they would get their trainers licence and through drugs would fast track their way to riches, taking food off the table of the honest horseman and his family. We now have to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic which somewhat put a halt to the proceedings as well they should, but I ask with skepticism will this pandemic kill what has started with the indictments like it is killing humans daily? In all seriousness, we should all forget about racing and put our families first in these times, stay at home to reduce the risk and listen to the health experts. To one and all god bless.
—Bob Adams / London, ON
So here we are again, a pie-in-the-face moment for professional horse racing. We are being fed a story that all of our current problems with horse racing are the result of drugs and a few cheating trainers. This is partially true at best. Every contest in this universe has two things without which there is no contest. Those two things are participants and rules. To judge one part of this equation without consideration of all others is the very definition of insanity.
To assert, as the media and rule-makers would have you believe, that the sole responsibility for our current integrity quagmire is a group of dishonest trainers is to liken it to a college professor teaching basic math to an advanced class of nuclear physicist students. That simply won’t fly. Without reasonable oversight and apathy we wind up with our current problems. How could we reasonably expect a fair and honest game if the very people we put in charge of policing and judging are NOT held accountable for the current breach in honesty-integrity-fairness.
How much bang-for-our buck in oversight did we get at Freehold (to name just one track)? Where were the judges, where were the state gaming officials for that matter? You can’t tell me the responsible officials didn’t know there were big problems and if they didn’t know, they enabled the corruption to permeate and fester. Perhaps the Attorney General and the FBI should widen their investigation to include all enablers. As an engineer, I know that when you have a trainer performing beyond six sigma there’s something wrong and I know at the very least when I have the ability to analyze betting patterns but fail to lift a finger — then there should be further indictments.
In summary, until such a time that we completely and satisfactorily investigate and punish both the perpetrators and enablers at all tracks my dollars will stay in my wallet and as they say “May The Buyer Beware”.
—David Perry / Dearborn, MI
More thoughts from David Perry
So are the current racing indictments having any impact on the racing game? Now that a number the industry’s cheaters and enablers are aware the microscope is on them have we seen any changes in the way current races are impacted? Since harness racing is currently curtailed, let’s look to our thoroughbred brothers. What we see if we look carefully at the running tracks such as Will Rogers Downs, Fonner Park, Tampa Downs and Gulfstream are an unbelievable amount of longshots winning and at the same time an unbelievable amount of favorites are nowhere in sight. If you think this is a coincidence, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
So how is this obvious issue being dealt with by the officials at the track charged with maintaining integrity? The answer is they are out-to-lunch. The tracks’ websites show no follow-up actions taken and keep in mind every track has a state official present.
My suggestion is that we have an independent entity sanctioned by the state to oversee, investigate, ask the tough questions and REPORT. Very simply, the good ole boy system currently in place FOR US has not worked in years. Why is it that we can’t seem to catch anything until after it has happened. What we need is the equivalent of the TSA system used at the airport. A system designed to catch problems before they materialize unlike the CATCH THEM AFTER THEY CHEAT system we currently employ at all racetracks.
At the very least, the 25 per cent takeout of all races bet by the racetrack should pay for the type of oversight we deserve. The curtain has been snatched back and the game has been exposed, if we don’t demand and get change then we deserve the cheating we’re being spoon-fed.
—David Perry / Dearborn, MI
Feedback on the Dream Trot
From our readers on the Dream Trot (full story here):
I applaud the effort of HRU to give some light relief during these trying times. But what are you guys smoking? Sebastian K. getting away 7th from the 4-hole…
Also, it is obviously a very North American biased field as only horses that started at least one full season in North America are included. If you want to make it a global list, here is my list (expanding beyond the original limitation of horses that raced in the last 20 years). Post positions drawn through my in-house RNG (I am in the gaming business after all lol)
Ideal du Gazeau
AE1: Ready Cash
I have limited the entries to horses racing post 1975.
—Tristan Sjoberg / chairman Knutsson Trotting
Muscle Hill easy winner
Muscle Hill easy winner over Sebastian K with Hannelore Hanover getting the trip for third. Muscle Hill rates with Nevele Pride and Mack Lobell as the best trotters I’ve ever seen and Sebastian K maybe the fastest, while Hannelore Hanover, at her best, was the most consistent.