One of the state’s biggest thoroughbred racing weekends is the latest victim of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the state Racing Commission Tuesday approved cancellation of the $500,000 West Virginia Derby and $200,000 West Virginia Governor’s Stakes races at Mountaineer Racetrack.
“This is, in large part, due to concerns over COVID-19 restrictions,” commission executive director Joe Moore said.
Mountaineer Racetrack officials had planned to run the Aug. 1 races without spectators, but concerns about bringing in owners, trainers and jockeys from out-of-state to the Chester track ultimately proved to be untenable, he said.
Jim Colvin, manager of racing operations at Mountaineer, said the rescheduling of the Kentucky Derby to Sept. 5 was another factor, with at least two thoroughbred horse owners opting out of the West Virginia Derby to prepare for the Triple Crown race.
Colvin said it would not be feasible to push the races back to a later date, or to substitute other stakes races this fall.
“At this time, we would have no makeup dates,” he told commissioners during the meeting, conducted telephonically.
Also Tuesday, Moore told commissioners that the shutdown of state casinos, and thoroughbred and greyhound racing from March to June, along with a ongoing downturn in race wagering has pushed the date that the commission will run out of money from sometime between early next year and 2022.
Moore said the commission lost more than $550,000 in revenue during the shutdown and, as of June 30, has depleted its reserve funds down to $575,000 — a drop of $900,000 from June 30, 2019. He said that means the Legislature will need to act in the 2021 regular session to keep the commission from going insolvent.
“With the lost revenue, and the depletion of the general administrative accounts, it is essential this legislative session that the Racing Commission seek legislative changes to provide more revenue sources,” Moore said.
In December, Moore warned commissioners that the commission was running out of money.
“We’re eating into our reserve fund and general administrative fund to the tune of $50,000 a month,” he said at the time. “At a clip of $600,000 a year, both funds will expire their reserves during FY22 (the 2021-22 budget year, which ends June 30, 2022).”
The Racing Commission, which currently receives no general revenue funds, is funded through taxes on pari-mutuel wagering at the state’s two thoroughbred and two greyhound racetracks.
Those taxes are on a sliding scale, increasing in percentage as wagering “handles” increase. However, as attendance and wagering at the four racetracks has decreased over time, the tax is not sufficient to cover costs of salaries, benefits, and operating expenses for the commission.
Commissioner Ken Lowe said he believes the commission’s fate rests with the Senate Finance Committee, adding, “I feel sure they’ll fill the funding needs.”
The Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, has generally been supportive of the racing industry.
- n another COVID-19 related matter, commissioners authorized Wheeling Island Racetrack to temporarily combine the positions of director of racing and racing secretary at the greyhound track.
Kim Florence, regional president and general manager of Wheeling Island Casino and Racetrack, said eliminating the position of director of racing is one of several measures being taken to assure the long-term viability of the racetrack.
“We’re in the unfortunate circumstance that COVID-19 has crippled the state of our business,” she said.
Commissioners will revisit the merging of the two positions at the January commission meeting.
- New Commissioner J.B. Akers participated in his first meeting Tuesday. The Charleston attorney succeeded longtime commissioner Jack Rossi, who was not reappointed to the panel when his term expired in June.