Who is Tom O’Mara?
Although he’s no stranger to the hunter/jumper community, many U.S. Equestrian Federation members in other breeds and disciplines are not familiar with the candidate for the organization’s presidency.
But anyone who followed his progress in the organization wasn’t surprised when the nominating committee announced Tom as its selection for the top job. The board voted Tom in at its virtual mid-summer meeting June 22, but he won’t actually take office until the annual meeting in January. Current president Murray Kessler, who also has a hunter/jumper background, will remain in the post until the annual meeting, so there is time after the election to make the shift seamless.
In his four years on the USEF’s board of directors, Tom, a 57-year-old self-described “problem-solver” has been a good point man for Murray on several issues. The most significant involved what to do about the troubled USEF laboratory after Tom was selected to head a task force on the situation.
Testing for prohibited substances in competition horses is a keystone of the USEF’s mission, and a scandal involving mishandling of test samples from the entry of a high-profile competitor and trainer left the USEF with “egg on our face,” as Murray put it.
The task force in 2019 came up with the tidy resolution of transitioning the lab to the University of Kentucky, which also will provide additional research opportunities for equestrian sport. It was a win/win, kudos to Tom and his task force.
A veteran of Wall Street, Tom serves as USEF’s secretary-treasurer and chair of its budget and finance committee. But his resume is only part of the energetic and affable candidate’s story.
As fellow board member Cynthia Richardson noted, “From the first time Tom came on as an independent director, he became very engaged, to the point where he reached out to learn more about the other disciplines and what the makeup of USEF was.
“He’s a very easy man to approach and an easy person to talk to,” added Cynthia, a former president of the Arabian Horse Association. “I’m excited that he decided to run; I think he will serve USEF very well as a president.
Another board member, U.S. Dressage Federation president Lisa Gorretta, noted “his approach is always very positive, he’s very good about doing his homework.
“He’s open to listening to opinions and does not presume he knows what he does not know,” added Lisa, who is confident he will take advantage of calling on the huge amount of corporate memory available from the federation’s other volunteers.
An Ocala, Fla., resident, Tom has a rather unusual connection to USEF through his late grandfather, and namesake, Thomas Mason, who was a recognized judge for the USEF’s predecessor, the American Horse Shows Association.
Mr. Mason took his equestrian involvement seriously. When his son and daughter each were discussing their wedding plans, he informed them that the only time he had free to attend nuptials was the Fourth of July weekend, since he was busy with horse shows for the rest of the year. The horse show calendar ruled; one couple got married on the Friday and the other on the Saturday.
“I love watching horses in any breed or discipline. The horse was always part of the DNA on the O’Mara and Mason sides of the family,” said Tom, whose uncle, also named Tom Mason, was quite a horseman, riding in the Junior Essex Troop and with the Essex Foxhounds in New Jersey. He has cousins who are trainers and even one who is a farrier.
When he was a boy, Tom yearned for the Connemara pony that he never got. Then his family moved to Colts Neck, New Jersey, as horsey as its name. The kids in his neighborhood all played baseball together, but any time the girls departed with their baby-sitting money to rent horses from a local farmer, the boys followed, since they no longer had enough players for a ball team.
“For $5, we could ride anywhere we wanted for as long as we wanted,” he recalled.
His interest in horses continued. As a young father, he would let his wife, Liz, sleep in on the weekends, and take his four children out to breakfast before heading to the nearby Monmouth Park racetrack. The kids enjoyed watching the action.
“They were in their strollers leaping up and saying, “Go horsey, go horsey,” he chuckled.
Horses became a big part of the family’s life. Liz took riding lessons, and then daughters Casey, Abby and Meg got serious about the activity, and finally son T.J. joined in.
“Not only did I see what it did for my children; I saw what it did for many, many children. That’s when I realized this is a great sport,” Tom noted.
Their involvement grew and when the O’Mara family bought a farm, Tom became a partner in the business with trainer Marty Babick, currently president of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, who was teaching his children when their show ring careers got under way. Meg won the Pessoa (now Dover Saddlery)/USEF Medal Finals, as did T.J., who also took the top spot in the Platinum Performance/USEF Talent Search Finals East.
“I got very involved as they got older and approached college age,” said Tom.
At that time, however, he recalled, “I thought our sport was missing the boat on collegiate riding. I was looking to the federation and affiliate on guidance for what to do with my kids when they were aging out of juniors.”
Although noting that the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association had a great deal to offer, he was interested in the concept of equestrians competing under the auspices of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which presented broader opportunity, including accessibility to scholarships. Tom’s daughters, Abby and Meg, both rode for the University of Georgia under the program.
By 2014, however, the NCAA was ready to drop equestrian because of insufficient growth in the number of colleges taking part, but Tom and other board members worked out a deal that enabled equestrian to keep going as an emerging sport and expand. As co-chair of the National Collegiate Equestrian Association, Tom is very involved in helping the concept flourish.
The new USEF educational partnership promoting collegiate riding is a concept that Tom introduced to the federation’s board. Nearly 98 percent of NCEA riders are “fan members” of the USEF.
That is important, since his goal is “to grow more fans and have more followers of our sport, building interest, to get it out in front of more people.” In the process, Tom has studied alternative sports, such as cycling, which he feels are doing a good job.
His enthusiasm and financial expertise made him an obvious choice to lead the federation, even though, as he observed, “I didn’t set out to be president of the USEF.
“I love being a member of the board. I felt I had a lot of skills in business and as a consumer of the product, primarily. I’ve owned two farms and had four kids and a wife who rides. I like sports, so my family’s passion for their sport became my passion.”
He has been consulting in financial technology and the equestrian business space with financial planning, but plans to “relinquish all that and simply work as president during the next four years.” His goal is “to apply my skills and try help out, whether at the collegiate or federation level.”
While he worked on Wall Street, he was involved in analyzing companies, stocks and bonds. “It’s all comparative. It’s very similar in sport. When you’re involved in a sport, it’s very important to look at other sports and see what the landscape is across all sports. Really, sports are a business.”
At the same time, he said, “There is no way we are ever going to lose our eye on the ball of growing sport from the grassroots to the high performance level and support it across all breeds and disciplines. But a little bit more outreach in the correct spots will grow the fan base, which then generates more revenue into the sport and the ability to do more things.”
And what would dedicated judge Tom Mason think about his grandson becoming president of the successor to the American Horse Shows Association, to which he was so devoted?
“I hope he’d be proud of it,” said Tom, “and I think he would be.”