Image by David Mark from Pixabay

June 16, 2019; Daily Progress (Charlottesville, VA)

Certain problems often crop up in organizations with multiple sites. Who makes what kinds of decisions is one of them; so are setting standards, coherence of operations, and control over resources. All of these factors are at play in a dispute playing out between the national Thoroughbred Retirement Association (TRF) and a local arm in Virginia, one of 18 sites where retired horses are cared for.

As of November, James Madison’s Montpelier will no longer host retired racehorses in Virginia. The American history museum focused on constitutional education has terminated the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s lease. The authority to govern the local arm of the equine nonprofit, which the national organization has claimed was always theirs, has been reclaimed, and the local board, which TRF claimed was always simply advisory, has partially collapsed. The horses living on the Montpelier acres will be moved to one of the other sanctuaries.

Citing a need to trim expenses to reduce the budget, TRF’s chief executive officer, John Roche, announced in April to the local board of directors/advisory board  that he was moving the Virginia treasury, along with the ability to write a check, to the headquarters in New York.

Though national headquarters states that gifts can be restricted to specific sanctuaries, the local board president of TRF, David Altman, said the move would damage the organization’s ability to bring in dollars to care for the horses and promptly resigned.

“I just couldn’t see it,” Altman said. “It wasn’t going to be pretty. It doesn’t affect anybody but the horses. That’s when I decided I didn’t need to be part of it.”

Dennis Kernahan, chair of the Montpelier Foundation, released a statement saying that local TRF decision-making had been reduced, and so they were ending the lease.

The Montpelier Board commends the local staff for their commitment to the appropriate care of the horses on site after a difficult period last year. However, the national organization has apparently noted that the local chapter is not in line with the finances of other operations nationwide and is looking to reduce costs at TRF Montpelier.

Some other TRF local board members have quit, as has the part-time event coordinator paid by the Saratoga office. A number of board members agreed to become an advisory board with less authority.

Jennifer Stevens, TRF director of development and communications, said, “Some changes were made by TRF where we streamlined our fundraising, marketing and financial efforts—I mean, we were duplicating everything—in order to save money and do the best by the horses. There were no budget cuts in terms of horse care, ever.”

The community is sorry to see the horses leave. The Saratoga office has been aware of the conflict among members and between the foundations, but, as Stevens points out, the Montpelier location has always been controlled by Saratoga. She added, “TRF is being unfairly portrayed as someone who has done something wrong, when in fact we’re doing everything we can in the best interest of the horses. And, unfortunately, that has made some people angry and they’ve created this problem in the public eye when, to me, that’s backwards. You would think that more people would want to help rather than be mad at the TRF because we are being asked to leave Montpelier.”

Again, this sort of dispute is hardly unusual in cases where local boards and supporters are encouraged to take responsibility for a mission and the resources meant to serve it—until they aren’t. Even when the chapters are separately incorporated, issues like these often emerge and need to be worked out. In this case, how it worked out ended up eradicating the site, and that is a shame.—Marian Conway