What a disappointment to learn that a thoroughbred rescue operation no longer will be housed at James Madison’s Montpelier as of November, in a dispute between local and national entities.
The program not only served an important purpose in caring for retired racehorses that otherwise might have been vulnerable to abuse or slaughter. It also subtly supported Montpelier’s history in its more recent days in the breeding and training of championship horses under then-owner Marion Dupont Scott.
The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation has rented facilities at Montpelier since 2003. We thought when the program arrived that it was an excellent use of the existing paddocks and stables, and added a picturesque element to Montpelier’s rural landscape as well.
Now the parent organization has decided to move all funds to national headquarters in Saratoga Springs, New York. The local branch needed to tighten up its budget and operate in a manner consistent with that of its other branches, said the TRF’s chief executive officer.
But the loss of local control over funding and other matters apparently worried the Montpelier Foundation, landlord for the Orange County TRF. Its board of directors voted to terminate the lease effective Nov. 6.
“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,” said Montpelier Foundation Chairman Dennis Kernahan in a statement. “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.
“There has also been a move to reduce decision-making locally. Hence, the Montpelier Board has taken action to end the lease.”
We have similar concerns about cuts in local control.
Many donors gave to the Montpelier branch of the TRF because it was local, because they felt a personal connection to the program. Many gave not just money, but also volunteer hours.
The national organization’s decision caused local several board members to quit. Other board members decided to stay on and accept the TRF’s demotion of their authority from a board of directors to an advisory committee.
Former local President David Altman said: “I just kept hearing, ‘We’re going to have to cut these expenses back.’ … 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.”
The national organization said that fiscal changes were a matter of eliminating redundancies and streamlining procedures. The horses were never at risk of reduced care, a spokeswoman said.
As for care, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office got a call early last year complaining that animals under the TRF’s local care were underweight. A visit in April 2018 confirmed that some horses were underweight, but not dangerously so. While caretakers certainly should avoid such a situation through good management, that may be easier said than done: It’s difficult to maintain weight on older horses, especially thoroughbreds, and especially through winter and early spring until grass is again available.
Mr. Altman, meanwhile, acknowledged that the national organization has a right to manage funds donated to the TRF.
But in the larger sense, a lack of balance between local and centralized control may be the crux of the problem.
National organizations such as the TRF offer advantages such as marketing themselves across the country, fundraising on a wider platform, and saving money through economies of scale.
Local organizations have the advantage of developing close home-grown ties, camaraderie and support; seeing reality at ground level, and being able to respond quickly to problems.
Both have their disadvantages as well. We’ve seen local organizations stumble and fail when funding dries up or local conditions change. We’ve seen national organizations grow bloated or lose touch with both their mission and the people who support them at the grassroots.
Whether any of these problems come into play in the TRF Montpelier situation is not clear. Yet the Montpelier board’s action is significant in suggesting that it sees a reduction in local control as problematic for Montpelier’s continued cooperation with TRF.
We, too, are concerned about reduction in local authority. But we also hope the local advisory committee can navigate its way through today’s difficulties and find a way to keep at TRF outpost in Central Virginia.