Election Upheld, But Is It Sweet Home Alabama?

The National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association has accepted the results of a contentious Alabama HBPA election, but there remains animosity, a lawsuit, and questions over whether live Thoroughbred racing will ever return to Alabama.

The National HBPA executive committee discussed the Alabama situation behind closed doors Feb. 10 during the organization’s winter convention in Hot Springs, Ark., and the following day, the board of directors accepted the election results. Officials said the Alabama HBPA had addressed concerns by changing its bylaws to require it to be “more financially transparent” and hold quarterly meetings, hold general membership meetings and provide comprehensive reports on all matters, and have an election every three years.

The organization also must be “more aggressive” in its efforts to return live horse racing to Birmingham Race Course, where the last meet was held in 1995. The track does offer Greyhound racing and takes wagers on Thoroughbred races from around the country.

The most recent Alabama HBPA election took place in the fall of 2006; the next one is scheduled for October 2009. Previously, no elections had been held for more than 10 years, and another group petitioned--without success--the National HBPA to recognize it as the official Alabama horsemen’s representative.

Individuals told The Blood-Horse they dissolved the group in order to vote in the 2006 election, and they alleged about 65 voting cards were rejected. National HBPA representatives Dr. Ed Hagan, chairman emeritus, and Peter Ecabert, an attorney, presided over a Jan. 27 hearing in Birmingham that addressed the validity of the election.

Hagan, recently dubbed the National HBPA election guru, said the ballots were sealed and opened by himself and a certified public accountant. He did say officials with the Alabama HBPA decided whether prospective voters were qualified or not.

“We heard both sides of the story,” Hagan said Feb. 11. “We felt that they complied with all the timely dates, and that Alabama HBPA bylaws were fulfilled. It was a very legitimate election, and a very one-sided election.”

In an interview last fall, Dr. David Harrington, a former member of the Alabama HBPA who has pushed for financial disclosure and regular meetings, criticized the National HBPA for not taking sufficient action and asked why the local group would determine voter eligibility given the circumstances. “That’s like putting the fox in to guard the hen house,” he said.

National HBPA officials have said, however, they can only go so far because of agreed-upon policy that keeps the organization from interfering in affiliate business. The National HBPA receives dues each year from affiliates.

Hagan said the Alabama HBPA is now charged with reaching out to those deemed ineligible to vote and bringing them back to the HBPA fold. Individuals involved in lawsuits against the Alabama HBPA can’t join because of a conflict of interest, though if lawsuits are dropped, they could, officials said.

Alabama HBPA president Elbert “Skip” Drinkard said he “pretty much stayed at arm’s length” during the election and left it in the hands of a certification committee to determine voter eligibility. Drinkard’s wife, Pat, secretary/treasurer of the Alabama HBPA, is writing letters to those not certified in an effort to increase membership, he said.

“We’re trying to be inclusive instead of exclusive,” said Drinkard, a trainer who has served as president for more than 12 years. “This is the first time we have a board that’s not scattered all over the country. I think we’re all on the same page.”

Drinkard also said a hearing on a lawsuit challenging the organization is scheduled for Feb. 20. “We want to go to court to put this thing behind us,” he said.

That may not be easy to accomplish. Several people, including Fred Palmer, told The Blood-Horse they believe they were qualified to vote but were denied the right. Harrington alleged the voting rules were frequently changed in the lead-up to the election.

The situation is complicated by the fact the Alabama HBPA receives more than $10,000 a month--$120,000 a year--from Birmingham Race Course owner Milton McGregor to maintain simulcasts of Thoroughbred races, and has done so for more than 10 years. Dissidents have questioned why other horsemen’s groups continued to send Thoroughbred signals to Birmingham given the fact it hosts no live racing.

Drinkard, when asked about the chances of live horse returning to Alabama, again expressed optimism. He said the “key to returning live racing is alternative gaming,” and a swing in votes in the state legislature could get it done.

Though the state Supreme Court recently pulled the plug on electronic sweepstakes machines at Birmingham, McGregor has plans to spend $40 million to restore the track for horse racing should alternative gaming be approved, Drinkard said.

“The main objective of our board is live racing and funding Alabama-bred races” hosted by other tracks, Drinkard said.

Finances remain a concern of individuals who have questioned current Alabama HBPA leadership about accountability and record-keeping. In fact, many documents showing various charges for rental cars, legal fees, and even hair appointments were faxed to representatives of various affiliates by the rival group in an attempt to get the National HBPA’s attention.

“In my opinion, National should step up and police these people,” Freddie Hyatt, a former member of the Alabama HBPA board and now a member of the Tampa Bay HBPA board, said in an earlier interview. “We’ve got too many problems in our system, and we need to straighten it out.”

Drinkard expressed a willingness to work with all horsemen in Alabama and indicated the organization would comply with the Feb. 11 National HBPA directive.

National HBPA president Joe Santanna said the new bylaws adopted by the Alabama HBPA “reflect their decision to embrace all horsemen in Alabama. The Alabama HPBA is now positioned to respond to its members as they pursue the return of live racing to Alabama."

Along with Drinkard, members of the new board were reported as follows: Scott Lingo, Ernie Slaton, Dennis Vasser, Tony Williams, Kenneth Holley, first alternate Linda Bosarge, and second alternate J.W. Scarborough (owner directors); and Ronald Bosarge, Robert Cogswell, Johnny Inabinett, Darrly Jackson, Jack Stidham, first alternate Dennis Murphy, and second alternate Dwaine Glenn (owner/trainer directors).