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The coal industry and population aren’t the only things dwindling in West Virginia. Horse and dog racing, once well-attended and well-funded sports, are facing an uncertain future after years of decline.

Controversies around these sports often are couched as a moral question about the double whammy of gambling and ethical treatment of animals, but, as with many things in West Virginia, the crisis is really more about money.

State funding props up both racing industries as attendance and wagering have fallen off, and new federal regulations on horse racing will put the sport’s survival to the test.

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act puts forth federal guidelines that must be followed by every track, including having a medical director on staff to promote jockey safety, along with guidelines for medication and drug use and other safety measures.

West Virginia’s two thoroughbred tracks don’t have a medical director on staff, and the cost of making that happen caused vocal concern at a meeting of the state racing commission this week. Some of the new federal mandates, with oversight from a new, nonprofit federal agency, must be implemented by July 1, 2022, while others go into effect in January 2023.

Proponents of the law point out it that will curb injuries and fatalities that have plagued horse racing in recent years.

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The new federal agency, known as the HISA Authority, also can charge fees on racing licenses to pay for the new federal regulations. While large tracks in large states can take that hit, it’s bad news for the industry in a state like West Virginia, where, for two consecutive years, the tax on wagering hasn’t been enough to fully fund the racing commission’s operating expenses and payroll.

West Virginia is one of a handful of states challenging the new law in court. If the state isn’t successful there, that could mean the end of horse racing in West Virginia.

Greyhound racing, meanwhile, isn’t facing new mandates, but it has seen a similar downward trend in wagering, and the industry is wearing a target. Former Senate president Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, made eliminating state funds for winning purses his major legislative initiative last year. Carmichael’s legislation, which likely would have ended dog racing in West Virginia, had a lot of lobbyist backing.

Carmichael’s legislation failed, but the forces backing it have retained an interest in the West Virginia racing industry.

Considering all the factors, along with a pandemic that has cut into attendance and the fact that West Virginians can now do all kinds of legal wagering on their smartphones, it seems likely racing is on its way out. It’s just a question of when.

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