Racing concerns shared

WEIRTON – Horsemen from Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort spoke out Monday against a proposal to shorten the horse racing year by 14 days, saying it would hurt them and the economy in Hancock County.

“If they take away 14 days in December, that’s going to cause a lot of people to lose their jobs,” trainer Craig Cox said at Monday’s hearing of the West Virginia Racing Commission in Weirton.

The commission called the hearing after Mountaineer submitted a proposal to reduce the number of thoroughbred racing days at the Newell track from 210 to 196.

A parallel proposal would end the practice of running 10 races a night in October and November, keeping the schedule at nine races a night all year long.

Mountaineer says the shortened racing year is necessary in light of recent state budget cuts and to keep the racetrack competitive with surrounding states’ racetracks.

But some horsemen say Mountaineer’s proposal, which is endorsed by the Mountaineer Park Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA), is a case of overreacting to a threat that has not materialized.

“Everybody’s acting like the sky is falling, but they’re not looking for positive answers,” said Basil Ritchie, a groom at the track.

Several horsemen spoke in favor of a proposal by HBPA board member Donna Zook to reduce the number of races per day from nine to eight. Zook said she has surveyed and received the support of 120 HBPA members.

But Rose Mary Williams, director of racing at Mountaineer, said such a move would save only $1 million – not nearly enough to make up for $2.6 million in anticipated purse shortfalls.

“It’s not an option,” Williams said of Zook’s proposal.

Williams and HBPA President John W. Baird said the calendar cutbacks will help offset the effect of the West Virginia legislature dipping into the purse fund that horsemen rely on for winnings.

Earlier this year, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed a bill that cuts video lottery revenue appropriations to various thoroughbred and greyhound breeders’ and purse funds by 10 percent and redirects them to the State Excess Lottery Revenue Fund.

Because Mountaineer’s purses rely heavily on revenue from video lottery and table gaming at the casino, the new law, which takes effect July 1, will cut an estimated $2.5 million annually from the horsemen’s purse fund, Baird said.

Baird said the purse fund took another hit in May when the legislature decided to restore $1.06 million in funding to children’s programs by authorizing a one-time reduction from the purse fund.

Both proponents and opponents of the 14-day cut agree that the purse fund has suffered and that the threat from racetracks in Ohio and Pennsylvania is real. They don’t agree on what to do about it.

Looming large at Monday’s hearing was the impending opening of the Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course in Austintown, Ohio. Williams said the racetrack, which opens in November, will be in direct competition with Mountaineer because two-thirds of Mountaineer’s patrons come from Ohio.

“This will lead to a saturation of the market,” she said.

Williams said the increased competition, the decrease in the purse fund and the decrease in the horse population all necessitate the elimination of December racing at Mountaineer.

“In order for us to compete, we need to maintain our purses at the current level. Right now, we simply don’t have the purse money to run in December,” she said.

Williams and Baird told the racing commission that without any changes in the racing schedule, the purse fund could face cuts of up to 30 percent in July.

“It’s strictly about the money,” Baird said.

Commission member Bill Phillips asked Williams for evidence that Mountaineer will suffer as a result of the Austintown racetrack. Williams said Mountaineer has done market research on the subject but that she didn’t have it with her.

Phillips also asked Williams about the economic impact of a shortened racing calendar, to which she replied, “I think the impact is going to be minimal. … I don’t see any people losing their jobs because of 14 days.”

Although Baird supports the 14-day reduction, he said the racing industry will doubtless be affected. “There’ll be an impact on the whole economy of Hancock County,” he said.

Hearing examiner Jeff Blaydes said the racing commission will accept written comments on the proposal through June 30 and will make a decision as soon as possible.