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Watching the Wheels: Room at the Top
Thursday, December 29, 2016 - by Mike Tanner, USTA Executive Vice President and CEO

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Phil Langley is going to hate this column, or at least the first half of it.


Phil, who announced on Nov. 20 that he had decided to step down as the United States Trotting Association president at the end of 2016, has never been very comfortable with attention being paid to him. True to form, he was mildly frustrated with the fact that the press release announcing his impending retirement was longer than one paragraph.  


“Keep it simple,” he had told me, and we did, but even that was too much. Ironically and typically, Phil didn’t want the story to be about himself.


Phil is just the ninth president in the 79-year history of the USTA, and his 13-year tenure is the second-longest, behind only Corwin Nixon, whose 16-year span stretched from 1987 until his death in 2003. But what stands out isn’t so much the duration of Phil’s time in office as much as it is what happened while he was in charge.


Online registration and entry. The PATICS internal member database. The eTrack system for racetrack data. The Strategic Wagering program. Six-figure funding of medication research. Significant monetary support of the Meadowlands out-of-competition testing program. The development and launch of an ambitious and award-winning social media initiative. Several hundred thousand dollars spent to support the national broadcasts of the sport’s flagship races. The sale of an antiquated, expensive, oversized office campus and the purchase of a modern, right-sized and -priced new office building. The dizzying expansion of the USTA’s publicity and website platforms, making the Association the most prominent source of harness racing news. The Support Our Standardbreds program that steps in to financially support and rescue horses in dire straits. The list goes on, and all of these things happened under Phil’s watch.


A few things about being the USTA president. One, it’s an unpaid position. It’s a lot of responsibility for no money, and, in fact, Phil managed to personally wind up in the red each year because he insisted on paying his own way to any number of conferences, races, and meetings. I almost never could get him to turn in his receipts for reimbursement.


Second, while the position is very influential and highly visible, it’s not necessarily enjoyable. If there’s something wrong in the industry, the guy at the top is going to hear it, and Phil did, all the time. It’s not an easy gig, but I never once heard Phil complain about any of the flack that was directed his way. He just kept pushing forward and was eminently accessible. I was under a blanket directive from Phil to never hesitate in giving a member (or anyone else who wanted to talk to him) his personal cell phone number. In executive circles, that’s pretty much unheard of, but that’s how he wanted it.  


I will miss Phil’s intelligence, dry sense of humor, guidance, and candor. We didn’t always agree on everything – the effective impact of takeout reduction always made for contentious, if esoteric, conversation, for example – but the respect that I have for the man and his contributions is enormous. He’s a true Hall of Famer in every sense of the word.


So where does the organization go from here? In the short term, the bylaws dictate that Ivan Axelrod, the USTA chairman of the board, will serve as the USTA president until the board’s next annual meeting in late February, at which time an election will be held to fill out the remaining two years of Phil’s term. As of early December, two directors, Russell Williams from Pennsylvania and Joe Pennacchio from Florida, had already filed the necessary paperwork to formalize their respective candidacies and commenced campaigning, while another potential candidate, USTA member Ryan Macedonio, had declared his intention to run for the position via his “Trotcast” podcast and on his Facebook page.


I know and like all three individuals. Russell is a longtime USTA director with a lifetime involvement in the sport. He’s the current vice chairman of the Association who departed a successful law career to become president and CEO of the Standardbred Horse Sales Co. Joe was the president and chief executive officer of some of the world’s most notable names in merchandising, including the Jordan Marsh department store chain, before retiring. He currently heads the Florida Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association and is an amateur driver. Ryan, a former driver, is an omnipresent, energetic social media presence whose YouTube page describes himself as “The Cosmos’ No. 1 Interviewer and Podcaster (according to my mom).”  


The new president will be chosen by a vote of the USTA board of directors in Las Vegas on Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. Who is elected will determine the course the Association takes, at least for the next few years. Got an opinion on what that should look like? Let the candidates and/or your elected USTA district directors know, or e-mail me at mike.tanner@ustrotting.com. I’ll make sure your comments reach the board.


Here’s wishing you and yours a healthy and prosperous New Year.

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.