Chad Brown, a Mechanicville native and accomplished horse trainer, is slated to address Mechanicville High School’s graduating seniors Saturday, but some students are “outraged” over Brown’s ties to recent labor violations and track-related horse deaths over the years.
Brown’s keynote address at the Mechanicville commencement was announced earlier this week in a note posted to the district’s Facebook page and website. It quickly drew concerns from parents and students who questioned whether Brown is an appropriate person to address high school graduates.
The students and parents highlighted recent findings that Brown had failed to pay his workers overtime and maintain proper payroll records, arguing those labor violations are “criminal” and make him an unsuitable speaker at a high school graduation.
Some students are also upset the school district would invite someone so closely tied to horse racing and the deaths of horses that sometimes result from the sport, pointing out 16 of Brown’s horses have died at tracks across New York since 2009, including one earlier this month in training at the Saratoga track.
“It’s kind of insane the school picked a criminal and someone who is responsible for the murder of 16 race horses to be an inspirational speaker and give us advice for the future,” said Hailey Bub, an 18-year-old Mechanicville senior set to graduate Saturday.
Bub, who plans to study to be a veterinarian technician and hopes to work with large animals like horses, spent two years in a BOCES program learning how to care for horses. She said she has long been personally opposed to horse racing but thinks the labor violations alone are enough to disqualify him as a speaker.
Jon Hunter, Mechanicville Central School District’s interim superintendent, on Thursday said he was aware some graduates and parents had concerns about Brown’s keynote address, but said he was satisfied the labor issues had been resolved and that Brown would offer students an inspirational story they could connect with.
“We know our speaker is committed to sharing a very inspirational story about the roots he has had in our community,” Hunter said in a phone interview. “He sat in the same seat as those kids 25 years ago; he has a powerful personal message about Mechanicville and how to be successful.”
Hunter said the graduation speaker is a “student-directed initiative” driven by senior class officers in coordination with high school administrators. He said he was notified about the speaker about a month ago.
In May, Brown agreed to pay more than $1.6 million in back pay, damages and fines after a federal investigation found he had violated multiple provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the rules of the H-2B visa program for foreign workers, according to BloodHorse, a horse racing trade publication. In signing a consent decree, Brown also agreed to implement a series of new practices in his business to ensure compliance with federal labor laws. The federal investigation covered violations that occurred between December 2013 and August 2017 at Belmont Park, Saratoga Race Course and other locations.
Students opposed to Brown as the speaker said the labor violations should disqualify him.
“He does owe some of his employees a lot of money he hasn’t paid, and he was charged with that a month ago, so I don’t know why we are selecting him to be a speaker,” said Issac Green, who will be graduating from Mechanciville on Saturday. “Mechanicville has always pushed its students to be better people and inviting him doesn’t reflect that in the slightest.”
Jacob DeRepentigny, another Mechanicville senior, said he was open to hearing what Brown would say but was deeply troubled Brown had failed to pay his employees what they were owed.
“I think someone who shorts people and cuts corners with people is not someone who should be speaking to high school grads,” he said. “It’s not the morals we were raised on, and I don’t think any of us should be looking up to that at all.”
Brown could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.
‘Connected to the industry’
Brown, who grew up following horse racing in and around the Saratoga Race Course, has risen to the top echelon of the horse racing profession.
Brown has been awarded the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer in North America, the highest honor in the profession short of a Hall of Fame induction, in each of the last three years. He won the Saratoga Race Course training championship in 2016 and again in 2018, breaking the all-time record for races won in a Spa meet, with 46 wins last year.
But to anti-horse racing advocacy group Horseracing Wrongs, which tracks racing-related horse deaths across the country, Brown’s success in the industry makes him a bad speaker for high school students.
A Mechanicville parent notified Horseracing Wrongs about the scheduled commencement speaker after the school announced Brown’s speech earlier this week.
Patrick Battuello, founder and president of Horesracing Wrongs, this week wrote a letter to Mechanicville school district officials, calling on them to rescind their invitation to Brown to be the commencement speaker. In the letter, Battuello wrote that the horse racing industry was “engaged in wholesale carnage.”
“I’m not out to villainize individual people, and I’m not saying Chad Brown is a bad person,” Battuello said in a phone interview Thursday. “That said, he works for an industry that kills thousands of horses annually for gambling … It’s poor judgment [for the school] to invite someone connected to the industry.”
Bub, the soon-to-be graduate interested in caring for horses, said she and a friend were mulling a silent protest at Saturday’s graduation, maybe turning her back to Brown as he delivers his address. But she also took solace in the fact that the flap over Brown gave her and others a chance to share information about horse racing and the treatment of horses at the track.
“There are a lot of animals that go through a lot of abuse and don’t have their own voices,” she said. “I like to think of myself as a big animal advocate that can give them a voice.”