Kentucky Horsemen: Petition Protests Actions by Board

Cutbacks in benevolence and backstretch programs, as well as termination of an investigation into alleged financial misdeeds, have been cited as the reason why some members of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association have called for a new election of the president and board of directors.

Almost 50 Kentucky HBPA members, most of them Lexington-based trainers and owners, signed the petition, which reads: "The undersigned, as concerned members of the Kentucky HBPA, are requesting an immediate new election for the office of the president, and also the board of directors. As horsemen and owners, we feel this is in the best interest of our organization and our membership."

There has been speculation among Kentucky HBPA officials as to whether the petition called for the ouster of Dr. Alex Harthill, who resigned as president July 10. Trainer James Jackson, who is based at The Thoroughbred Center near Lexington, said that's not the case.

The Kentucky HBPA office received petition at about the time Harthill resigned July 10 and Susan Bunning was elected by the board to take his place, though Jackson said he had not received a response from the board since he faxed the petition to the office. The timing created confusion as to the intent of the petition, officials said.

Jackson, who supports Harthill, said the petition came about because horsemen have questions as to the actions of the board and the allegations that money is missing. Others wonder why an organization has cut the very programs it was formed to support.

Jackson, who signed the petition, testified during a Kentucky HBPA meeting May 13. It is well-known he supports Harthill, and served on the presidential advisory committee.

Harthill, the Churchill Downs-based veterinarian, resigned when the Kentucky HBPA board voted at a closed meeting to end an investigation into financial transactions between Century Consultants, a company co-owned by current and former Kentucky HBPA officers, and Choctaw Racing Services, a Native American off-track betting network in Oklahoma.

"Horsemen should know if everything is right (with the association)," Jackson said. "They don't explain anything to you. They just do it."

The current board contends that only a few thousand dollars is unaccounted for, and that the probe into financial operations had to end because it was costing the organization money without results. Harthill believes the amount of missing funds is much higher.

"We spent $50,000 (on the probe), we have no answer, and we weren't close to an answer," Bunning said. "The board felt it was a runaway train that needed to be stopped. But it wasn't always an easy decision."

Others close to the situation said the investigation, handled by Louisville attorney Joe Cohen, cost less than $25,000. Charles Ricketts, the lead investigator, strongly urged the Kentucky HBPA to continue the probe, which hinted at possible federal violations by Century Consultants, Choctaw Racing Services, and horsemen's groups.

A budget recommended by the Kentucky HBPA finance committee shows backstretch programs would be reduced by $30,000, "with no projected change" in programs; contributions to the chaplaincy program would be eliminated; and benevolence programs would be cut by $25,000. Meanwhile, a line item called "other expenses" was projected to increase by $50,000, and salaries would be cut by $75,000.

Bunning has said the cuts were necessary in part to pay for the investigation. Bunning said the Kentucky HBPA is doing everything possible to trim spending so programs can be reinstated. "We're really trying not to spend money unless it's absolutely necessary," she said.

Harthill, who remains a member of the Kentucky HBPA, acknowledged there is a "good deal of discontent and a difference of opinions." He again said the probe was terminated without his consent.

"Either people can't do addition and subtraction, or they're liars," Harthill said. "One of my main reasons for resigning was that they blamed it on me, and I had nothing to do with it."

Marty Maline, executive director of the horsemen's group, said he wasn't sure how many names are needed on a petition for the board to consider it. Some horsemen said the magic number is 15; the petition circulated in Lexington contained 47 names.

"I don't know if there is a provision for a petition (in the bylaws) that has any significance," Maline said. "But whenever the membership has a concern, the board will address it."

The next regular election isn't scheduled until the fall of 2003. Bunning was elected by the board to serve as president until the time of the next election.

The investigation into Century Consultants actually was started by the National HBPA, which several years ago agreed to help Choctaw Racing Services obtain simulcast signals. At the time, Rick Hiles was president of the Kentucky and National HBPAs, and Don Sturgill was general counsel for both organizations. Both were affiliated with Century Consultants, as was Maline, who was executive director of the Kentucky HBPA.

The National HBPA formed a task force to look into the situation, and the panel is expected to report its findings during the National HBPA convention the weekend of July 20.