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WV horse breeders hope for next governor’s help

Photo provided to The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register A horse runs in the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort on Aug. 6.
Photo provided to The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register
A horse runs in the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort on Aug. 6.

CHESTER, W.Va. — With profits at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort continuously squeezed by newer casinos in both Ohio and Pennsylvania, those who breed and race thoroughbreds at the Hancock County track hope gubernatorial candidates Jim Justice and Bill Cole realize how much their industry means to West Virginia.

“The thoroughbred racing industry needs the state government to restore the stability that was originally promised and to allow for policies and legislation that provide growth for our industry and for the state of West Virginia,” said Jami Poole, who serves as president of the Mountaineer Park Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “We hope that the state government will consider initiatives to grow, protect and promote the racetrack casinos in our state.”

On Nov. 8, Mountain State voters will choose a successor to term-limited Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin by electing either Justice, a Democrat who owns coal companies and The Greenbrier luxury resort in White Sulphur Springs, or Cole, a Republican who serves as state Senate president and owns car dealerships in the southern portion of the state.

“We hope that whoever is elected governor will continue to recognize the impact our industry has in our local communities and in the state,” Poole said. “Issues such as continued reductions in appropriations from revenue generated at the casino racetracks to the smoking ban in the casino in Hancock County have had a negative impact on our business.”

Both Cole and Justice seem to support the industry.

“I support the efforts of those who passionately work to preserve and protect live racing and thoroughbred breeding and development,” Cole said. “I appreciate the need for political leaders to embrace this reality and work strategically to preserve and protect this and every other valuable job creating sector of West Virginia’s economy. West Virginia needs all good jobs in order to deliver the economic diversification the state needs.”

Justice said he believes the thoroughbred industry can be a marketing tool for the state.

“It means thousands of jobs, which we have to have, and it brings goodness to our state, versus just another slot machine,” Justice added. “The horses bring us tranquillity, they bring us beauty, they bring us entertainment and they bring us jobs — lots and lots of jobs. I think they’re going to be the marketing driver if we just expand that business.”

Profits for the Chester track between April 1 and June 30 collapsed by 47.5 percent in comparison to the amount the facility earned during the same period in 2015. Hancock County’s indoor smoking ban became effective July 1, 2015.

For several years, Mountaineer and other West Virginia casinos have watched profits slide as new facilities opened, especially the Rivers Casino in downtown Pittsburgh and The Meadows Racetrack Casino near Washington, Pa. Now, the Hollywood Gaming Mahoning Valley Race Course that opened in Youngstown, Ohio last year also affects Mountaineer, which now stands as Hancock County’s largest employer.

Poole said the thoroughbred racing industry is a major contributor to the economy in the state of West Virginia accounting for more than 5,000 jobs and contributing more than $253 million in total business volume to the state’s economy. Along with Mountaineer, the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle features thoroughbred racing. Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and the Mardi Gras Casino & Resort in Charleston offer greyhound racing.

Randy Funkhouser, president of the Charles Town HBPA and owner of O’Sullivan Farms, said the horse racing industry is critical to the Eastern Panhandle and the rest of the state, and state government is a huge player in keeping it afloat in complicated financial times.

“It has gotten to such catastrophic proportions that people are leaving. I do think you have two very qualified gentlemen here, and I have to take my hat off to both of them for taking the time to get to know the industry and talk to people in the industry to get an idea of how important it truly is,” Funkhouser said of Cole and Justice.

Poole said horse owners and trainers in Hancock County own more than 25 farms, which he said are vital to the local economy.

“The Baird family is in the process of investing in their farm with the addition of a new stallion barn,” Poole said. “This is just one family farm that is continuing to grow despite the economic uncertainty.”

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