Questions Arise at Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation as Board Members Leave

Questions Arise at Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation as Board Members Leave
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By Ryan Conley and Amanda Duckworth

Several members have recently left the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s board of directors, exits that parallel allegations that leadership dissension and financial struggles are plaguing the non-profit organization.

It is believed at least six directors have left the TRF board in the past few months, including one that was forced off by board vote, with some former and current board members questioning the direction of the group that admits to operating in the red the last two years.

Among the directors that recently left are Peter Bradley, Kip Elser, John Hettinger, Nadia Sanan-Briggs, and John Stuart, though some departed for personal reasons unrelated to TRF issues. Patricia Lenihan also confirmed she was the member dismissed from the board, but she declined to discuss the particulars.

Long-time executive director Diana Pikulski and TRF president Johnathan Miller acknowledged recent bottom-line fiscals are in the negative, including a deficit of $665,346 at the close of 2005, according to public filings. (Final numbers for 2006 won’t be available until the federal filing deadline in May, but Miller said pre-audit figures indicated another deficit, though less than recorded in 2005.)

Pikulski and Miller blamed deficits on mounting expenses outpacing grants and donations needed to care for an ever-increasing number of horses. Miller, who replaced Terence Collier as TRF president last August, said the group’s equine population has swelled from less than 300 when he joined the board in 2001 to about 1,250 horses.

“We have still paid our bills on time,” said Miller, former senior director of the National Security Council who also held key positions in the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. “If we are guilty of anything, it is that we have allowed the rapid growth in terms of our horse population.”

Most of TRF’s funding comes from a $5-million endowment given in 2001 by the estate of the late philanthropic horseman Paul Mellon. Along with other donations and acquired grants, the TRF had a surplus of $1.02 million and $327,681 in 2003 and 2004, respectively, before the recent deficits.

“We are using up money from designated accounts,” Pikulski said. “So the question becomes, ‘Do we figure out ways to raise more money, or do we cut back on existing programs?’ ”

Miller believes boards of the TRF’s size (about 25) are bound to produce disagreements over expenditures, particularly when its members are passionate about an emotional mission such as rescuing racehorses.

There are divisions over how the group handles the ever-volatile horse slaughter issue. Some board members have accused executives of illegally funding lobbying support for anti-slaughter legislation. “That is just not true,” Miller said.

One of the recently departed board members, Stuart, cited personal time concerns as well as divisiveness as his reasons for leaving.

“I didn’t feel comfortable with the direction the TRF was going in and frankly, our board was divided and I wasn’t comfortable with the divisiveness of the board,” Stuart said.

But Stuart, who operates Bluegrass Thoroughbred Services (with Peter Bance, who left the TRF last August), also said: “It is a wonderful organization and a wonderful concept. Sometimes when organizations grow too fast and grow too big, they lose their focus.”

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