NEWELL, W.Va. — The trifecta of declining video lottery revenues, a smaller purse fund and out-of-state competition continues to have a deleterious effect on thoroughbred racing in Hancock County.
Last week week, the West Virginia Racing Commission approved a request from Mountaineer to cut this year’s racing schedule by 50 days – from the statutorily-required 210 days to 160 days.
That means the racing year, which started on March 1, will end on Oct. 17 instead of December, said Director of Racing Rose Mary Williams.
“With the (210) days we had applied for, we would have had to lower (average daily) purses,” Williams said. “So we met with the (Mountaineer Park Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association), they took it back to their members and voted to reduce the number of racing days and keep the purses at the same level.”
Mountaineer currently is running nine races a day, with an average daily purse of $90,000, she said.
HBPA President Jami Poole said the alternatives were either cutting days or cutting purses. “We chose to cut days,” he said, noting that the request came by way of mutual agreement.
Although the HBPA board approved the reduction in days, not all members are happy with it.
Board member and trainer Donna Zook said she took a proposal to the racing commission that would have kept the average daily purse at $90,000 and cut the racing year by only 25 days.
“I had a CPA do the whole thing. We went through all the numbers,” she said. “We could have run through Nov. 14, but the racing commission wouldn’t even look at it because they wouldn’t recognize me and (board member) Bart Baird.”
While Mountaineer management and the HBPA board have focused on maintaining the status quo for purses, some HBPA members have stressed the importance of a traditional racing year – even if that means lower average daily purses.
Without racing activity at the track, the racing industry in Hancock County will suffer, Zook said.
“Once you give the days away, you never get them back,” she said. “It’s going to be devastating because people have to get off the grounds and take their horses. They’re not going to come back.”
The debate over how best to adjust to changing market conditions intensified in 2014 when Mountaineer management asked the racing commission to cut 14 live racing days from the December schedule.
Mountaineer’s request was driven by concerns over a shrinking field size, increasing competition from racetrack casinos in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and reductions in the purse fund that horsemen rely on for winnings.
The racing commission declined the request but then permitted the racetrack to close in December anyway because of insufficient purse funds.
Since then, a new standard of 185 days has been floated in the form of a racing commission resolution and a bill in the state Legislature. Some horsemen fear that a new statutory minimum will be a slippery slope toward even shorter racing schedules.
Williams said that, despite the statutory minimum, the racing commission has the authority to make changes to the calendar. They did so earlier this year with Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, the state’s other thoroughbred racetrack, when the racing days were cut from 220 to 187.
Williams said the recent requests for a shortened racing schedule are about adjusting to a new reality that includes stiff competition from the Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course in Austintown, Ohio, which opened in November 2014.
“The racing commission knows that 210 days is not realistic anymore,” she said.
Mountaineer management and HBPA leaders have been meeting over the last three to four months to work out a compromise, Williams said. The 210-day calendar also is part of the HBPA contract.
“We worked well together, trying to come up with a scenario that the horsemen were happy with,” she said. “Our aim is to keep our purses where they’re at, so that we’re competitive with Mahoning Valley.”
What’s more, Mountaineer does not want to be in a position of running races concurrently with Mahoning Valley, she said. With Mahoning Valley not starting up again until November, field sizes at Mountaineer have gone up, she said.
For that reason, Poole said the reduction in days at Mountaineer could have a positive impact.
“It’ll help us have bigger fields. We can’t maintain four-horse fields. We’re too close (to Mahoning Valley) to butt heads like that. Our fields are bigger now,” he said, noting that they’re running about 6.5 horses per race.