WV Racing Commission approves fewer horse races at Mountaineer Racetrack

Citing increased competition from out-of-state racetracks, the state Racing Commission Monday authorized Mountaineer Racetrack to cut its thoroughbred racing days from 160 to 130 this year — despite objections from track management who said it would result in lost revenue and cuts in employee pay and benefits.

“We’ve got to keep racing going,” Commission Chairman Jack Rossi said after the vote. “What can we do to keep it going for the time being?”

The request to reduce racing days at the track from five to four days a week was unprecedented in that it came, not from track management, but from the track’s Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

Weirton attorney Kevin Pearl, representing the HBPA, told commissioners competition is reducing wagering and causing purses at Mountaineer to drop sharply, making it difficult to fill race cards for five racing days a week.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to be better for everyone if we run four days a week, eight races a day,” he said.

However, Rosemary Williams, racing director for Mountaineer, said the loss of racing days will mean lost revenue for the racetrack casino and will cost racetrack employees wages, health insurance coverage and other benefits since they will no longer have enough hours to be considered full-time employees.

“Your vote has cost Mountaineer money, and it has cost employees at Mountaineer their benefits,” she told commissioners after the vote.

She said there will not be sufficient increases in wagering on the 130-day race schedule to make up for the more than $500,000 of revenue the racetrack will lose with the 30 lost race days.

“To make that up, we would have to have an additional $20 million wagered on racing. That’s not going to happen,” she said.

Jami Poole, president of the Mountaineer HBPA, argued horse owners and breeders cannot afford to run a 160-day race calendar with a nearly $2.8 million decrease in purse funds this year.

“If you cut my revenue 30 percent, how can I pay my employees?” he asked.

Racing at Mountaineer has been especially hard hit by competition from the Mahoning Valley Race Course, located outside of Youngstown, Ohio, about an hour from Mountaineer, which opened in the fall of 2014.

In November, the Racing Commission approved a request from Mountaineer to reduce its live racing days from 210 to 160.

Newly appointed commissioners Ken Lowe and Anthony Figaretti voted to approve the additional reduction in live racing days Monday.

“I want to make both sides happy, which is probably impossible to do right now,” Figaretti said prior to the vote.

Pearl said he’s hopeful the state’s struggling racing industry will get a boost from the Justice administration.

“I think the governor sent a very clear message he wants racing — greyhound and thoroughbred racing — to be a very competitive product,” Pearl said.

On April 8, Gov. Jim Justice vetoed a bill that would have eliminated a $15 million a year state subsidy for greyhound racing purses (SB 437), saying it would have cost jobs, hurt state tourism and potentially resulted in lawsuits challenging the legality of allowing the state’s two greyhound racetrack casinos to operate as stand-alone casinos.

After Monday’s meeting, Mountaineer Racetrack lobbyist Nelson Robinson said he would recommend racetrack management seek a court injunction to block the Racing Commission’s decision on the grounds that, under state law, only racetrack management may request changes in racing days.

“Clearly, we can’t allow this to stand,” he said. “We’ve got the tail wagging the horse.”

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com,

304 348-1220, or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.

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