James Madison’s Montpelier and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) have split up, and the abrupt parting of ways has upset many local horse people involved with the nonprofit sanctuary for retired racehorses. 

In a formal statement, Dennis Kernahan, chair of the Montpelier Foundation, announced the termination of the lease agreement with TRF, 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. 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,” Kernahan wrote.

The surprise move comes in the wake of an April meeting during which the chief executive officer of TRF, John Roche, told the sanctuary’s local board of directors he was moving its treasury—funds donated in support of the Montpelier TRF operation—to national headquarters in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He also said the local operation needed to tighten up its budget.

In protest, local TRF board president David Altman of Gordonsville promptly resigned. Although Altman concedes that TRF has the right to manage locally raised funds, he said doing so compromised his ability to raise money for the equine haven at Montpelier and oversee care of the horses.

Recalling his reaction to Roche’s plans, Altman said, “I just kept hearing, ‘We’re going to have to cut these expenses back.’ I just couldn’t see it. 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.”

He added, “I agree with Montpelier. They’re doing the right thing” to cancel the lease.

Several other local TRF board members also quit, as did Nancy Lowey, event coordinator for the TRF operation at Montpelier whose part-time salary was paid by the national office.

But not everyone quit. Several members of the local board went along with the national organization’s desire for a small advisory committee—a step down in authority from a board of directors.

That advisory committee is now looking for a new home for the 48 former racehorses grazing on 150 acres of land at Montpelier. If another property is not lined up before the November deadline, the horses will be dispersed among TRF’s 17 other sanctuaries, most likely in Virginia.

Roche, the CEO, declined to comment. Jennifer Stevens, TRF’s national director of development and communications, spoke in his stead.

“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,” Stevens said.

“There’s really not much that's changed other than we are having more control over finances, fundraising and marketing,” she continued.

Stevens said TRF has 650 horses living at 18 retirement sanctuaries across the country. The TRF website states that seven of those facilities are part of the “TRF Second Chances Program,” in which state prison inmates learn skills they can use to find employment once they are released. One of those is the James River Work Center in Goochland County.

The TRF website gives a brief history of its relationship with Montpelier. According to the site, the first TRF horses arrived at Montpelier in November of 2003, as part of a deal with the Paul Mellon estate, which agreed to pay for initial repairs of the barns and pastures on the designated acreage if TRF was permitted to open an equine sanctuary there. In recent years, an anonymous donor has paid TRF’s rent at Montpelier and provided additional funds toward the upkeep of the property.

The current lease agreement between Montpelier and TRF, effective Sept. 1, 2018, states the monthly rent for the first year is $1,800. The amount was set to go up to $2,000/month in September of this year and $2,400 in the third year of the three-year lease.

The lease specifies that TRF was to maintain a committee that would “directly oversee TRF’s operations at Montpelier,” with at least nine members and no more than 20, all “familiar with equine care” and living within 100 miles of Montpelier.

Asked whether TRF had violated the lease agreement, Montpelier’s director of communications, Price Thomas, responded, “The lease agreement requires that TRF maintain a local decision-making group to ensure proper care and stewardship of the horses. While we understand there is a local advisory committee of some sort, the fiduciary and other oversight roles are headquartered in Saratoga with the national organization.” 

Local horse people involved with TRF are reluctant to speak on the record, but Altman said in the past, the national office was sometimes slow to pay its local vendors—a problem alleviated, in his view, so long as the local board had check-writing powers and could pay for hay, farm equipment fuel and other necessities out of its own treasury. He also alluded to internal squabbles on the local board.

Alarm bells rang loud and clear last year when animal control at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office received a complaint about TRF horses appearing underweight. Deputy Angie Bonner investigated the complaint and has returned to check on the horses on a regular basis, according to Montpelier TRF farm manager Crystal Wever.

Orange County Chief Deputy Mike LaCasse said the horses in question were “underweight when we got out there in April [2018]. Their body condition improved steadily over time.”

“There wasn’t anything criminal,” LaCasse noted, and no charges were filed.

Stevens said a veterinarian evaluated the horses and made recommendations regarding their care.

“We put those recommendations into practice, and those horses are doing well now. They're great, and Thoroughbreds are notoriously hard keepers”—that is, tending to be thin—“and sometimes some of them don't do well through the winter,” Stevens said.

Altman said the local board drew on its funds to buy blankets to help keep horses warm in the wintertime. The barns on the property can accommodate some, but not all, of the nearly 50 horses.

When pressed to comment further, Altman returned again and again to his concern for the animals. He said many of the former racehorses at Montpelier are more than 20 years old and need expensive medical attention and special food supplements, just like elderly people do.

Trimming the budget for Montpelier TRF’s aged herd would not be in the horses’ best interests, in his opinion.

“The reason I can’t support [TRF] anymore is their basic practice of trying to do it as cheaply as possible, no matter what the cost to the horse,” he said.

He also said his fund-raising efforts would suffer if local residents couldn’t be sure their gifts would go directly to horses at Montpelier.

“We had a lot of local support. That’s pretty much dried up,” he said.

Stevens, however, said the national office allows donors to earmark gifts for specific sanctuaries. 

Altman conceded that could help, but he remains skeptical. To his mind, there is a “North vs. the South mentality” in play, with Roche, the CEO in Saratoga Springs, looking to run the whole show while many in the Orange County community of horse people would like to look after their own.

“It’s a shame,” he said of the situation that has ended badly and left hard feelings all the way around. “I hope they can find some place they can put [the horses].”

Speaking from Saratoga Springs, Stevens was well aware of the unrest far away in Orange County.

“I’m sorry that they don’t like the CEO’s approach,” she said, pointing out that Montpelier’s TRF facility always has been under the control of the New York headquarters.

“There’s not a New York way of running the farm or a Virginia way of running the farm. The people who are running the farm on a day-to-day basis are Virginians.”

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.”

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Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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