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House panel’s budget bill cuts $2M in racing purses

WHEELING, W.Va. — A budget bill advanced Monday by the House Finance Committee would cut $2 million in supplements for thoroughbred and greyhound racing purse awards in West Virginia next fiscal year.

Purse award supplements come from taxes on other gambling activities at the state’s four casino-racetracks – Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino Racetrack and Mardi Gras Casino & Resort in Cross Lanes, which offer live greyhound racing, and Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort in Chester and Charles Town Races in the Eastern Panhandle, which offer horse racing.

The supplements totaled almost $77 million in 2012, including about $57 million for the thoroughbred industry and $20 million for the greyhound industry.

For the greyhound industry in particular, a combination of factors – including decline in public interest and previous cuts by the Legislature – have already reduced purse awards to a point where many smaller kennels no longer are profitable, according to a Legislature-commissioned Spectrum Gaming study released earlier this year that recommended the state end subsidies for dog racing altogether.

Steve Sarras, a Wheeling greyhound kennel operator who employs six people full time, said he likely would have to scale back his business if the Legislature cuts the purse supplements. Others, he believes, will find themselves in much worse shape.

“I can’t tell you how many kennels will go out of business,” he said. “It might be one, it might be two, it might be five. It’s hard to say.”

A bid to get West Virginia out of the struggling greyhound business entirely by buying out the state’s dog owners and breeders failed earlier in the session.

State law currently requires live greyhound or thoroughbred racing as a condition of operating a full-scale casino, but a bill introduced in the state Senate would have ended greyhound racing in the state this summer and paid $36.5 million to dog owners and breeders over three years as compensation.

Some lawmakers, including Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, believed the plan could have led to lawsuits challenging the casinos’ very existence, because voters approved various expansions of legalized gambling under the premise it would be limited to facilities with live racing.

Sam Burdette, president of the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association, had been a leading advocate of the buyout plan, but acknowledged his organization’s membership was divided over the buyout proposal.

Sarras, a native of Massachusetts, is among those who opposes the concept of a buyout.

“The people who were supporting the buyout bill were people who were failing in the business, or who had already retired. … Times have changed. We need to look at things a little differently, but don’t come in and scrap the whole thing,” he said. “I uprooted my family on a promise that was written into law, written into statute, about how we were going to get paid.”

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