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Horse racing industry struggles to stabilize

By DANYEL VANREENAN

The Journal

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va.  — Providing 3,500 jobs, the horse racing industry in Jefferson County is a significant part of the community, according to Randy Funkhouser, president of Charles Town Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association.

Not only does the racing industry provide thousands of jobs, but Funkhouser said annual economic impact in Jefferson County alone is approximately $160 million, according to a 2012 study conducted by West Virginia University.

Although the industry is a major component of the county, Funkhouser said racing has been significantly impacted in recent years. According to Funkhouser, horse racing in Charles Town has lost as much as 50 percent of racing purses since 2007, and there has been a 40 percent drop in foal crop — meaning breeders are not investing in Charles Town racing as much as in the past.

Funkhouser said most of those decreases are due to a 2014 West Virginia Legislative bill called “The Haircut Bill.”

Funkhouser said the bill cut 10 percent of the amount of money allocated through statutes through racing purses.Not only did the bill cut of earnings, but it also redirected a certain amount of funds from major state industries — such as coal, oil, gas, timber and racing — to pay down the unfunded liability of Worker’s Compensation in 2005. The industries agreed to the deal, with the understanding that when the bill was paid, funds would be released to the industries again.

Funkhouser said every other industry has been given back funds except for racing. The first year the bill was in effect, he said the races lost $1 million– the second year they lost $2 million.

In addition to the bill, the casino and races have been impacted by new competition in nearby states. The number of races per day and the number of racing days per year have also declined, according to Funkhouser.

Although the racing industry is still struggling to stablize, Erich Zimny, vice president of Racing Operations, said 2016 saw the highest recorded amount of money wagered at the track. Zimny suspects a lot of that has to do with television distribution.

The racing season, running from Jan. 11 through Dec. 23, sees about 170 races. As well as hosting races Wednesday through Saturday, Zimny said races in other parts of the country are simulcast for attendees to wager on as well.

Annette Gavin, the Jefferson County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau executive director, said Jefferson County has many assets that make it marketable for tourists. Not only is the dining, shopping, casino and racing a draw for many tourists in the Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., area, but the natural attractions such as hiking, biking and white water rafting appeal to many as well.

Gavin said the racing and gaming industries are a good example of a strong partnership with the community to increase tourism and revenue.

“I truly believe tourism is the answer to the state budget crisis,” Gavin said. “The racing industry should be celebrated — it’s an absolute amenity in our community.”

Racing may be a marketing opportunity and business for some, but for horse trainer Ollie Figgins, III, racing is just a way of life.

As a trainer, Figgins said he is in control of many things throughout the day. His day begins early at 6:30 a.m. Grooms clean and saddle the horses, then the horses are trained and exercised. The grooms clean the horses again, and the horses are fed around 11:30 a.m. At 5:30 p.m., the horses are fed again; by 7 p.m., the races are set to begin. Races can last until 11 p.m.

Figgins has been in the business since he was 15. He said his father was a jockey as well.

“It’s been a way of life for me,” Figgins said. “It’s something I grew up in. It’s a challenge to win, it’s a challenge to balance money and make sure the horses are taken care of as well. I think it’s a very important part of the community.”

Sen. Paul Espinosa, R-66th district, said he’s going to work with colleagues in the upcoming term to try to address the concerns Funkhouser and other racing leaders have.

“I haven’t seen specific legislation pertaining to racing, but I’m going to work with leaders of the local racing industry to address concerns,” Espinosa said.

Espinosa said those concerns include the effects of the “Haircut Bill” on the racing industry. He said he’s going to work to restore the funds the bill took away from the industry to increase the revenue and provide room for growth at the track.

“The horsemen didn’t cause the problems leading to the “Haircut Bill,” yet they were asked to pay down the unfunded liability,” Espinosa said. “It was done in an underhanded way, and I’m going to work to reverse the unfair bill.”

Espinosa, Zimny, Gavin and Figgins all agree racing is an integral, beneficial aspect of the community. Funkhouser said the impact goes beyond the track itself. The industry supports farmers and agriculture as well.

“I don’t know if the county could survive without racing,” Figgins said.

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