USAE Up One in Fight with USET

The USAE scores in court, but the game's not over. And wedding bells will be ringing for one member of the 2000 Olympic team. . .
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The USAE scores in court, but the game's not over. And wedding bells will be ringing for one member of the 2000 Olympic team. . .

The U.S. Equestrian Team/USA Equestrian conflict isn't taking a summer vacation. Doesn't it deserve a Siberian getaway?

Yes, but unfortunately, the long-running drama isn't packing its bags. Earlier this month, there was the failure (not unexpected) of a mediation effort between the two organizations fighting for the title of equestrian sports' National Governing Body. The latest development is a court decision that went against the USET, voiding bylaw changes and restructuring enacted this year during annual meetings. The judge also required that USET books and membership records be open for inspection to trustees, as requested by USAE President Alan Balch, who filed suit. Balch, a USET trustee by virtue of his USAE post, argued among other things that the USET had exceeded its authority in making structural changes. He called the USET's actions "a sad commentary on the management of an organization that seeks to replace a fair and open governing body for this entire sport."

The court judgment means the team now will have to hold its third annual meeting in five months, as it bids to take over NGB status from USAE (formerly the American Horse Shows Association.) Among other things, it needs to re-do the bylaw changes geared to transforming it into a body that could become an NGB, if the U.S. Olympic Committee decides to designate it as such after a hearing this fall.

The question is whether a new annual meeting can meet all the legal requirements and still be held before the hearing, little more than a month away. But USET leader Armand Leone maintained that whether the team acts before the hearing or not, "we have clearly carved out what steps we have taken or will take," and noted that there undoubtedly would be a transition period for any change of command. The court decision's greatest impact might be as a distraction during the time that USET staff is already busy preparing for the hearing.

In the wake of his success with the lawsuit, meanwhile, Balch called on fellow USET trustees to drop the NGB challenge and join forces with USA Equestrian.

"There is no reason virtually the same relationship we have always had cannot continue under scenarios both leaderships have seen during the mediation process," Balch said.

Those scenarios would be interesting, since federal law requires that NGB duties not be delegated. The USET and AHSA had been sharing responsibilities, with the USET funding, fielding and developing teams, while the AHSA handled other international duties. The USOC made it clear that a 1997 operating agreement between the organizations, which has now expired, was not a permanent solution to a governance problem that needed addressing.

As the NGB battle unfolded, the USET "made a conscious decision not to engage in" a public relations war, noted Leone. He contends continued negative press and publicity "bombarding" by the AHSA "really has put a lot of our trustees on the sidelines," both in terms of contributions and participation, which disappointed him.

The only bit of good news for the USET was the judge's decision not to make it pay Balch's legal fees.

"The court finds that plaintiff's (Balch's) suggestion that he acted only out of a concern for USET to be meritless," the court papers stated.

When will all this end? The USOC hearing should be an eye-opener, with claims and counterclaims going on the record, as the actions and operations of both organizations and its principals are dissected. Maybe that will be so definitive that the loser won't feel the need to prolong the process by going to arbitration.

HOOFPRINTS: You know that nightmare you have in which you're walking into a college exam and you realize you haven't read the text for the course? David Saunders lived through something like that at the World Pairs Driving Championship in Riesenbeck, Germany, last week. A little more than 45 minutes before he was due in the dressage arena, one of his horses suddenly went lame with an abscess. He had to harness his marathon horse, unbraid the other dressage horse so the two matched, warm up fast and go in the ring.

It wasn't the best score he ever earned--74.24 percent, putting him 64th of 66 participants--but his quick action saved the American team from having only two competitors. The U.S. wound up seventh of 20 teams overall.

The horse/driver combination with the most mileage, Lisa Singer, had the best finish for America, coming in 12th with her Morgans. Saunders moved up to 40th, and Larry Poulin ended 49th.

It all points to the need to spend more time competing in Europe, rather than in isolation in America, noted the USET's director of driving activities, Wendy Wares-Cook. Saunders had competed a four-in-hand that included his pair horses in two European shows this summer, but Singer and Poulin came over cold.

"We gave it our best shot," said Wendy. "Now it's time we sit back and look at our training program."

SPEAKING OF PAIRS: Longtime show jumping couple Nona Garson and George D'Ambrosio have made it official. Nona's wearing a ring on her left hand set with not one, but THREE, diamonds. No wedding date has been set by the 2000 Olympian and her fiance, who is the brother of course designer Tony D'Ambrosio Jr.

News of the engagement prompted Dianna Babington, wife of Irish team member Kevin Babington, to take some of the credit. She remembers talking to George at the HITS Catskills show a few years back, when he asked her to put in a word for him with Nona. So she did. Not that she's claiming matchmaker status, but it obviously didn't hurt!