Disputed Vote At The Root Of Change In Colorado Horsemen’s Group Management

Just weeks before the 2021 race meeting at Arapahoe Park is to begin on Aug. 11, the Colorado Horsemen’s Association underwent a shake-up. Between the end of June and early July, the group’s former executive director, president, vice president, and two other board members all resigned their posts abruptly, leaving four remaining board members to reorganize the group’s leadership and hire an interim executive director.

The source of the discord, according to discussion at a recent public meeting of the group, may have been a disputed vote count on whether or not to retain longtime executive director Shannon Rushton.

Since the early 1990s, the horsemen’s group had been led by Rushton, whose son, father, and brother all train horses at Arapahoe. At the start of 2020, Bill Powers, director of racing for Arapahoe Park, died suddenly and Rushton was chosen to fill the role with the racetrack while continuing on in his capacity as head of the horsemen’s organization.

According to minutes taken from a March 2020 meeting of the Colorado Racing Commission, there were concerns about whether Rushton’s serving in both roles would be a conflict of interest. Bradford Jones, senior assistant attorney general for the Division of Racing Events, presented a petition for declaratory order to terminate controversy, requesting commissioners consider whether Rushton could serve in both jobs and take an official stance on the question.

Donia Amick, director of the Division of Racing Events, said that “the division has received emails, phone calls and also spoken to people in-person who were opposed to Mr. Rushton holding both roles,” according to meeting minutes. “Director Amick explained many of those people, if not all of them, wish to remain anonymous.”

(Amick’s experience of concerned horsemen wanting to keep their names off the record matches the experience of this reporter.)

The commission heard testimony from a number of people present at the meeting that day, most of whom spoke in support of Rushton. Bruce Seymour, director of Mile High Racing and Entertainment, represented that Rushton is “the most knowledgeable and in-touch person in matters pertaining to the backside of Arapahoe Park. [Seymour] stated that the experience would make Mr. Rushton the best person for the racing secretary position at Arapahoe Park.”

Indeed, Rushton said the CHA board had voted unanimously to allow him to perform both roles. Board members said that at the time, it seemed to them the best available temporary solution to help the track get through its 2020 meet.

The commission unanimously voted to allow Rushton to fill both roles, with the requirement the commission review a job description of his position at Arapahoe and monitor all meetings of the conditions book committee. The commission also requested an update from the track at the July meeting and an official query of CHA members to learn more about their feelings on any potential conflicts of interest. But, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the July meeting never happened, and remaining meetings leading into the 2020 racing season were taken up with coronavirus safety protocols and scheduling approvals.

Certain tasks normally handled by the CHA executive director, like serving as the designated horsemen’s representative during barn searches and for test barn security purposes, were taken out of Rushton’s hands due to his dual role.

Some horsemen who dialed into a July 9, 2021, telephone meeting of the CHA said they had heard no complaints about Rushton maintaining both positions last racing season and saw Rushton’s familiarity with the track and the horseman as useful skills in the role of racing secretary. Others said there were serious concerns, primarily about whether the racing office was carding races to favor some horsemen over others. Shannon Rushton has never saddled a horse, according to Equibase, although he did own two runners in 2014. He does breed horses, and is on record as the purchaser of at least one horse at auction for his family’s Rushton Farms, which sends horses to race at Arapahoe. Plus, CHA members who spoke with the Paulick Report say the horsemen’s interests and the racetrack’s interests are often at odds, particularly when it comes to expenditures on track maintenance. How could they feel comfortable a track employee would advocate for them when needed?

“There was a very big conflict of interest,” said owner/trainer Howie Chavers at the July 9 meeting of the CHA. “I was approached by a few people last year who said, ‘What do you have against the Rushton family?’ I said, ‘Nothing. I have a problem with there being a conflict of interest working for the racetrack and the horsemen, and a lot of other people feel the same way.’ I’ve talked to dozens of them in the past couple of days. That was a major issue there. I do think we need to stay positive and I do think we have to move forward.”

Chavers had been the only person willing to go on the record before the commission in April 2020 to express concern about conflicts of interest regarding Rushton’s dual roles.

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When the 2020 meet was over, multiple CHA board members began asking then-president Kent Bamford about the best way to source a new executive director. Kim Oliver, then a CHA board member, told horsemen at the July 2021 CHA meeting she and others brought up the issue with Bamford repeatedly and received pushback. Bamford told her he had already done some scouting and no one but Rushton wanted the job.

Rushton wasn’t the only member of CHA governance going into the 2021 meet while holding a racetrack job – CHA vice president Jim Weimer was part of a two-person security staff for Arapahoe during the 2020 meet, and was approved by the commission to reprise his role for 2021.

Rushton’s job with the CHA was a contract position, and when a question came up following discussion from board members in June about whether to renew his contract, the board decided to take a secret vote, which was conducted via text messages sent to Bamford. Board members said they agreed to the idea of a secret vote because they thought it would be the best way for voters who wanted to keep their stance private to avoid blowback either from Rushton and his supporters or from people who wanted him out. Bamford, whose position as president granted him a vote only in the event of a tie, tallied the eight votes.

Bamford told board members the vote results had been to renew Rushton’s contract, although he did not provide a tally of the yes/no votes. It was only later, in private discussions, that several members who had voted ‘no’ began comparing notes.

Screenshots from five of the eight board members – Victor Cervantes, Mark Schultz, Kim Oliver, Kerry Kemper, and Miguel Pena – reveal all five had texted Bamford “no” in response to the call for the secret vote.

The CHA board held a special meeting via telephone conference on July 6 with the purpose of conducting a new, roll call vote on the issue. According to minutes taken at the meeting, immediately after attendance was recorded and before a vote could be called, Bamford tendered his resignation, followed by Weimer and then Rushton, all of whom hung up.

Rushton and Bamford did not return calls seeking comment on their departures from the CHA.

In a public meeting of the CHA membership held via telephone on July 9, board members Vaughn Long and Sandy Miller also resigned.

“I’m not saying it was the best situation, and it was not the best situation for Shannon to be in both positions, but if we got by with it last summer … horses are coming in there, and this is just not good,” Miller said. “It was handled so poorly, and this is just not good. I don’t like the way the whole thing was handled. It was so wrong on so many levels.”

Longtime racing executive Jim Mulvihill was made interim executive director and new board members were installed July 13. Rushton supporters have hinted the new administration will have a long road ahead.

“The ramifications of this are going to be tough,” said one CHA member. “The new director, if he thinks the racetrack’s going to be easy to get along with … I don’t know.”

Ty Rushton, brother to Shannon Rushton, also dialed into the July 9 meeting to express outrage over the way Shannon had been treated by the board, given his years of service. He had a message for the group’s new management.

“If you’re wanting a peaceful transition, I hope you get it, but if anybody was after me and out to fire me, that’s a witch hunt,” said Rushton. “So, good luck. Good luck.”

He hung up the phone.

The post Disputed Vote At The Root Of Change In Colorado Horsemen’s Group Management appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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