Lillis to receive Community award; Gruwell a finalist for Administration award

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Aug. 24, 2019

Two individuals with close ties to the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association have been recognized through the 2019 Godolphin Thoroughbred Employee Industry Awards.

Bobby Lillis, Benevolence Administrator for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, was named the winner of the Community Award. Bessie Gruwell, Executive Director of the Delaware THA, is a finalist for the Administration Award, which is new to the slate this year.

The Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards recognize and reward the outstanding talent, diligence and commitment of farm and racing stable staff. The Community Award is for those who have made outstanding contributions to the industry and who contribute to the greater good of the sport.

Lillis and the other winners will receive their awards at the Godolphin TIEA luncheon Oct. 11 at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. The winners of award categories that have finalists will be announced at the luncheon.

“Winning this award is simply beyond my wildest dreams,” Lillis said. “I am truly grateful that my work ethic and my voice in representing our backstretch workers over my many years in horse racing is being recognized with this most prestigious Godolphin TIEA Community Award.”

“Our organization is very happy for Bobby and proud of the recognition he received,” MTHA President Tim Keefe said. “Backstretch workers are critical to our industry in Maryland, and the MTHA, with help from Bobby and other members of our staff, tries to ensure that the needs of this community are met.”

Lillis, 65, nicknamed the “Mayor of the Backstretch,” is a former jockey and exercise rider who was born in Detroit, Mich. He entered the racing business in his home state at a time when Michigan racing was prosperous at Detroit Race Course and Hazel Park.

He met his wife, Ruthanne, in 1975 at Monmouth Park in New Jersey and moved to Maryland in 1976 because the state had four tracks and year-round racing at Bowie Race Course, Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course and the Maryland State Fair at Timonium, which at that time had regular 40-day meets.

“Horse racing is the only work I’ve known, and it is an industry with countless career opportunities,” Lillis said. “For me, it has been being a jockey and small-potato horse owner, and for the last 20 years, as the MTHA Benevolence Administrator as an advocate for backstretch workers facing hardships and offering financial assistance to those in need through the help of funding from the Maryland Horsemen’s Assistance Foundation and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.”

Lillis, who lives in Westminster, Md., and has two sons, Ryan, 34, and Sean, 25, said that about 25 years ago when he was an exercise rider he began attending MTHA Board of Directors meetings to express his views on things related to backstretch living conditions. He said he quickly realized the MTHA and other industry organizations were dealing with many issues, including the expansion of casino gambling in neighboring states, and were fighting to keep horsemen and backstretch workers employed.

That led to some legislative advocacy and industry promotion.

“It was then that I started to involve myself with the politics of our future, doing things like writing letters to the editor at all local publications,” Lillis said. “I would look at the political candidates I thought were good for horse racing and encourage all my friends and people at the racetrack to vote for those legislators.

“And on a grass-roots level and through social media, I like to promote horse racing to anyone who will listen. I am very grateful that I have been able to help many backstretch employees that are less fortunate that others.”

Gruwell, whose horses won almost 400 races and earned $4.97 million in a 20-year training career that ended 2004, has been Executive Director of the Delaware THA since 2005, just before Delaware racetracks began operating video lottery terminals, and later full casino-style gambling. She previously served as President of the Delaware THA, which represents horsemen at Delaware Park.

As a trainer, she was instrumental in the careers of jockey Juan Umana, who began working for her stable at Delaware Park as a groom and exercise rider and not long after won the Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice rider in 1993; and future Hall of Fame jockey Ramon Dominguez, who she brought to Laurel Park in the winter of 1999 along with his eventual wife, Sharon, who was Gruwell’s exercise rider.

While operating her stable, Gruwell was also employed full-time at DuPont in its aerospace division. She would go to the barn early and leave during the renovation break. She continued to maintain that schedule when her job was transferred to Maryland.

For more than 20 years, Gruwell has been a positive force as part of the overall THA, for which she serves as secretary. In Delaware she has been heavily involved in many initiatives, including its creation of the annual Owners’ Day celebration at Delaware Park and the launch of the Delaware Certified Thoroughbred Program, which provides roughly $1 million a year in bonuses and stakes purses in a state with a very limited Thoroughbred breeding program.

Gruwell helps lead the Delaware THA in the area of legislative advocacy in a state that heavily values agricultural endeavors, including horse racing. When she was President of the horsemen’s group, she worked alongside Standardbred industry interests on a campaign that led to the 1994 law—the Horse Racing Redevelopment Act—that legalized VLTs at the three racetracks in the state for the primary purpose of bolstering the industry and ultimately revitalized horse racing in Delaware.

She has assisted backstretch workers with a retirement program and regularly addresses immigration and visa issues. Gruwell also has implemented marketing programs through the Delaware THA, including special-event days recognizing outstanding horses Afleet Alex and Havre de Grace—both broke their maiden at Delaware Park—and “Family Fun Days,” which are designed to bring families out for a day at the races.

“As executive director she works day in and day out to represent horsemen on all issues,” said the individual who nominated her for the award. “Bessie has dedicated the majority of her life to Thoroughbred racing. Racing has been good to her, but she has been very good to, and for, horse racing.”

The Godolphin TIE Administration Award was implemented to celebrate those in Thoroughbred breeding, racing or support services. It recognizes a high standard of organizational, time-management and communication skills; attention to detail; ability to suggest innovations and efficiencies on the job; positive interactions with others; and fostering team spirit. The finalists will be interviewed  the day before the winner is announced at the luncheon in Lexington.