'Hostile Takeover' of MNR HBPA Alleged

The Mountaineer HBPA is in turmoil again after three board members were suspended.

The president and two members of the Mountaineer Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association board of directors have been suspended in what some members are calling a “hostile takeover” of the organization.

Board members held a meeting March 17 and voted to suspend the organization’s president, Jami Poole; second vice president John Baird; and board member Wynn Jolley. The three men claim they were told the meeting was scheduled to discuss the status of executive director Maria Catignani and had no idea what was to come.

In addition, an attorney hired by Poole to handle Mountaineer HBPA legal matters was fired by the board at the St. Patrick's Day meeting.

The Mountaineer HBPA represents owners and trainers at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in West Virginia. Horsemen there race for more than $30 million a year in purses because of revenue from video lottery terminals, and have access to solid pension and health insurance plans.

“I was unaware of what was going to take place,” said Baird, who attended the March 17 meeting. “We held a vote on the lawyer, and I voted not to remove him, but I didn’t know what was coming next. I asked for reasons for the suspensions, and was told we’d get them at our hearing. How can you vote to suspend anyone without giving reasons?”

Hearings for Poole, Baird, and Jolley are scheduled for March 30. First vice president Rembrant Wright is serving as interim president.

Poole, elected president of the Mountaineer HBPA in 2008, couldn’t be immediately reached for comment. A protest by former board member Loren Cox was filed alleging Poole wasn’t eligible to run for office because he was working on the gate crew at Turfway Park in Kentucky in violation of the organization’s bylaws, and continued to do so after the election.

Poole, a trainer, has horses at Mountaineer. He protested the group’s previous election, the results of which eventually were nullified by the Mountaineer HBPA board of directors after a lengthy legal battle. Poole lost the 2007 election by eight votes and alleged, along with others, that the ballot box was stuffed. The legal wrangling ended when the board, which admitted no wrongdoing, agreed to vacate the previous election.

Baird and his wife, Pat, footed much of the costs for the investigation that led to a new election. John Baird is the brother of the late Dale Baird, Thoroughbred racing’s all-time leading trainer who was based at Mountaineer for most of his career.

“(At the March 17 meeting), Rembrant Wright asked me, ‘What have you done to be suspended?’ ” Baird said. “I said if I’ve done something I should be suspended for, tell me.”

Cox’s protest over the 2008 election was heard in late February by the Mountaineer HBPA board, which decided a vote on Poole’s status would require a two-thirds majority. The measure was defeated; six members voted to oust Poole, but seven votes were needed. Four members voted to disallow the protest.

Poole is said to have been trying to replace Catignani, the executive director. Catignani, hired by the previous board whose president, Charles “Chuck” Bailey, died Jan. 3 after a long illness, couldn’t be immediately reached for comment, nor could current Mountaineer HBPA board member Mike Pappada, a trainer based at Mountaineer. Catagnini and Pappada attended the March 17 meeting.

Bailey's wife, Lora, the former executive director of the Mountaineer HBPA, remains administrator of the group's pension and insurance programs. She and Poole don't see eye to eye on many issues concerning the horsemen's group.

The National HBPA, which has assisted Mountaineer horsemen with previous elections, is keeping the latest developments at arms’ length.

“We told them it’s up to you guys to sort out who is going to be your leader,” National HBPA chief executive officer Remi Bellocq said March 18. “Just let us know who we need to work with. There are much bigger issues in racing we need to deal with.”