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Conflict arises over W.Va. live racing requirements

Journal photos by Ron Agnir Horses for Race 1 begin warming up in the Paddock at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races on Thursday evening.
Journal photos by Ron Agnir
Horses for Race 1 begin warming up in the Paddock at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races on Thursday evening.

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Both sides agree: More flexibility is needed in setting the number of live racing days at Charles Town Races. However, horsemen and track management seem to differ on whether that flexibility should favor adding racing days or reducing racing days.

“We’re supportive of reducing the minimum requirement,” Al Britton, general manager of Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, said in a recent telephone interview. “We need to come up with the right number. We need more flexibility.”

“We need maximum flexibility at Charles Town,” Randy Funkhouser, president of the Charles Town Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said in a recent telephone interview. “We’ve been for year-round racing at Charles Town. We can’t survive on six months of racing.”

Both men agree, though, that they want to work together to do what’s best for racing.

The West Virginia Racing Commission has drafted a resolution that requests state lawmakers reduce the minimum number of racing days at the state’s four racetracks to 185, and to let the Racing Commission set the number of racing days, rather than the Legislature by statute.

The minimum for the thoroughbred horse track in Jefferson County is 220 and for the thoroughbred horse track at Chester in the Northern Panhandle, Mountaineer Racetrack, is 210.

For the state’s two dog tracks, Mardi Gras outside Charleston and Wheeling Island, the minimum number of live racing days is 220.

However, the tracks can apply to race more than the minimum, John A. Myers, the acting executive director of the Racing Commission, explained in a recent telephone interview. Racetracks apply every year for the number of racing days they want to run and the Racing Commission must approve those applications.

“Not very long ago, the tracks got permission to run 240 days,” he said. “It is already in statute that there are factors that allow the number of days run to be reduced to 185, such as weather, available number of horses and emergency conditions.”

With the Horsemen’s Association’s consent, Charles Town got permission at the last Racing Commission meeting to not make up 20 days of racing that were lost during the winter because of hazardous weather.

By state law, Charles Town has to apply for 220 days of live racing in order to operate slots and table games.

“If you set the minimum at 185, that would be absolute – the tracks would be forced to make up canceled days,” Myers said.

And then there are changes in the purse structure, he added.

During the legislative session earlier this year, lawmakers passed the so-called Haircut Bill, because it took funds off the top, that reduced from 15 percent to 10 percent the amount of revenue from slot machines that goes to racing purses, the money awarded to horses running in a race. The money was redirected to the state’s general fund to help balance the budget.

The cut reduced the amount of slots revenue going to racing purses by between $2.5 million and $4.5 million.

That, combined with the loss of revenue because of competition from newly opened casinos in Maryland and Pennsylvania, the purses that can be offered at the state’s racetracks has been reduced considerably.

According to published reports, Rose Mary Williams, the director of racing at Mountaineer, said that track’s purse fund would run out by the end of November, even though the Racing Commission voted to drop the number of daily races there from nine or 10 to eight.

The larger purses attracted better horses and more horses to race at Charles Town. More and better horses attracted more patrons and increased wagering.

“We’ve come from the bottom of the barrel to national performers,” Funkhouser said. “We don’t want to destroy all that we’ve built up. Horses will leave, breeders will leave, jobs will leave. We’ve got to get our purse situation straightened out. We never foresaw the haircut coming.”

With a thinning purse fund, more races dilutes the winnings. By reducing the number of races and concentrating the purse fund on fewer races, each race becomes more lucrative, which could preserve the high quality of racing at Charles Town.

“With fewer races, the purse fund per day would be higher – that helps everyone,” Britton said. “If the purse fund runs out, that does not do anyone any good.”

He said the track management and the Horsemen’s Association have not talked formally about reducing the number of racing days, but informally, they have talked about 220 days being too many.

What is the optimal number of racing days?

“That would require analysis by our racing folks and talks with the Horsemen’s Association,” Britton said. “With the reductions in the purse fund, it does not make sense to have a minimum 220 days. We need more flexibility.”

“We want to work with the track to look at flexibility because of the shortage of purse funds,” Funkhouser said. “But we don’t want to start at 185 days.”

He would rather see more racing days approved and subtract from that number if necessary, rather than add racing days to a lower number.

“We want to work with management to do what’s best for racing,” Funkhouser said. “We want to respond cooperatively with the track to the Racing Commission’s draft resolution.”

He expects to meet Tuesday with the board of directors of the Horsemen’s Association to formalize a response to the Racing Commission and to meet with track management that same day to discuss the issue, Funkhouser said.

The Racing Commission is taking public comment on its draft resolution through Friday. Comments can be directed to Myers’ attention at West Virginia Racing Commission, 900 Pennsylvania Ave., Suite 533, Charleston, WV 25302, or [email protected].

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