01/13/2005 1:00AM

Florida horsemen air concerns


MIAMI - A group of about 60 Calder-based horsemen gathered at the track Thursday morning to voice their concerns over a variety of issues, with the focus of their attention centered on some of the practices and decisions made by the current leadership of the Florida Division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

The meeting was prompted by the recent firing of Nellie Torrente, who had served as horsemen's bookkeeper for the past four years, the last two under the direction of the horsemen's association after it assumed control of those duties from the tracks as a cost-saving measure.

Many horsemen were upset upon learning Torrente was dismissed without her status first being discussed by the horsemen's association's board of directors, as required by the organization's bylaws and guidelines. The bylaws were established at a director's meeting during the fall of 2004. After Thursday's meeting, the board agreed to review Torrente's firing on Sunday.

Other major concerns expressed by the group included the lack of communication between the board and its membership, as well as the need to hire an independent, professional negotiator for all future dealings regarding purses at Calder or potential revenue generated if slot machines are legalized in south Florida.

"I guarantee if we bring in a professional arbitrator we'll be running for more money than we do now," said trainer Bill Cesare, who helped organize the meeting. "Right now management is outsmarting us when it comes to negotiating for purses. We need somebody to speak on our behalf who is not tied to the track or beholden to them for stalls. We work our butts off to get horses in the entries and help them put on the show, but it's management that reaps the benefits while we are left to make what little pittance we can."

Several board members of the horsemen's group, including trainers Eddie Plesa Jr., Harry Benson, and Manny Tortora, also expressed their displeasure with the way the organization is run.

"I'm on the board, and there is no communication between the president and the board or the general membership," Plesa said. "It's a dysfunctional board, split into two factions, and as a result nothing gets accomplished. The situation is no different this year than it was four years ago."

Benson agreed there was no communication with the membership and that the "board and the leadership of the group did not relate to the general membership."

Tortora said, "Board meetings are open to the general membership, but if any serious issues ever arise, non-board members are often asked to leave."

The president of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, Linda Mills, attended the meeting and defended some of the group's practices. She also announced that her tenure is up in 60 days and that she does not intend to run again for president or for a seat on the board.

The group's vice president, Phil Combest, also attended the meeting.

"This meeting provided an open forum for an exchange of various viewpoints about the ongoing activities of the HBPA," Combest said. "My hope would be that the energy generated this morning will result in more member involvement, especially in the upcoming election for five seats on the board of directors."