NEWELL-A proposal to shorten the horse racing year at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort is renewing concerns about the vitality of the horse racing industry in Hancock County.
The request from Mountaineer to the West Virginia Racing Commission would essentially end December racing at the track by eliminating 14 racing days, said John W. Baird, president of the Mountaineer Park Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA).
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, he said.
The schedule cutbacks are necessary, Baird said, because the West Virginia legislature keeps 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.
"When you lose 10 percent of your purse money, that means you can't fund 10 percent of your racing," Baird said. "It's simple math."
The proposals before the racing commission would take Mountaineer's racing year down from 210 days to 196 days, in addition to eliminating one race a day in October and November.
Baird said the horses that used to come from Canada in the fall are "not as abundant as they were. ... There's a shortage of horses and there's a shortage of purse money."
Mountaineer's proposals were developed in discussions with Baird and received support from the HBPA membership and board of directors, he said.
"I didn't actually propose it. We were figuring out what we would have to do, and that proposal came up," he said.
It was either that or cut purses by 20 percent at the end of the year, Baird said. "I polled our horsemen and board of directors, and seven out of 10 wanted to keep the purses up and run fewer days," he said.
Among those opposed to the idea is board member Donna Zook, of Newell, a longtime horse trainer and ex-jockey.
Zook said the HBPA board should have voted on the proposal and that Baird's querying of individual board members fell short of a vote. Her alternative proposal of going to an eight-race-a-day schedule did not get fair hearing, she said.
"I had recommended that we cut a race a day. That would be sufficient to have the money left over at the end of the year to run all the way through December," she said.
Zook worries that eliminating December racing and cutting races in October and November will hurt Hancock County's racing industry and, by extension, the local economy.
"It keeps dwindling and dwindling. Eventually, people will just not stay here to run," she said. "It affects the people who rent homes, the people who work in the backside who come from East Liverpool, the farms around here that board the horses."
Zook said she remembers a time when the horses at Mountaineer ran year-round - six days a week, from January to December.
Former HBPA board member Rebecca Demczyk, who operates a horse farm in Atwater, Ohio, said Hancock County used to be a racing powerhouse, but the shortened calendar would be another sign of its decline.
"It's a big loss to this whole community if they close (for December)," Demczyk said. "Some of the horsemen used to stay around. They'll leave now, and they may never come back. It's an economic stress on the entire area."
Baird agrees that there will be an economic impact, but he doesn't know what else to do.
"I have a son who runs horses, and I worry about him," he said, referring to HBPA board member Bart Baird.
"There's no doubt it's going to (hurt the racing-supported economy). ... They're all going to notice when we're not racing in December, but the only option is to come up with enough purse money to race for, and we don't know where to get it. You have to fund them; you can't just have races."
The racing commission will hold a public hearing on the proposal at 1 p.m. June 23 at the Millsop Community Center, 3420 Main St., Weirton.
The hearing is being held because objections to Mountaineer's proposal were filed, said commission Acting Executive Director John Myers. The commission will use the hearing to take testimony in support of the objections and from Mountaineer.
"We need people to come (to the hearing) so they know how many people are affected by this," Zook said. "It affects thousands of people."