W.Va. Racing ‘Gradually Bleeding Out’

Official: Horse, dog tracks to take a hit in purse funds under new budget

CHARLES TOWN — Thoroughbred and greyhound racetracks in West Virginia are slated to take a hit in purse funds under the new state budget.

The Legislature cut portions from the racetrack purse funds from $14.1 million during the fiscal year that ends Thursday — although lottery officials said the actual amount was closer to $12 million, due to declining video lottery revenue — to $10 million for 2016-17, resulting in a reduction to be shared by the four racetracks in West Virginia.

Based on adjustments in projected 2016-17 video lottery revenue, Joe Moore, interim executive director of the West Virginia Racing Commission, said there will be an approximate reduction of $450,000 in the regular purse funds at the two greyhound racing tracks in Wheeling and Charleston, and a $100,000 reduction in the purse fund of Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort in Chester, which features thoroughbred horse racing. The horse track at Charles Town will see a reduction of approximately $1 million, but that projection will vary depending on the revenue generated from video lottery terminals.

“Cuts to purse funds raise concerns about the long-term viability of racing to those in the industry,” Moore said. “It is still too early to tell how these cuts will affect the future of the racing industry.”

Officials at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack could not be reached for comment.

Randy Funkhouser, president of the Charles Town Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said the purse funds have been facing cuts for quite some time and will continue to face them, which he said is very harmful to the Eastern Panhandle.

“We’re the little guy, and we’re constantly being choked to death down in Charleston,” Funkhouser said of the racing industry. “It’s death by 1,000 cuts, and each year it’s a deeper cut. We’re gradually bleeding out.”

Funkhouser said he can already see the effects of the reduction in purse funds. Normally, according to Funkhouser, there are 1,148 stalls for horses at the Charles Town racetrack by contract. He was told after a Tuesday meeting that there are currently 337 empty stalls this year.

Moreover, in past years, the track has run races as many as 235 days out of the season, which Funkhouser said is good for tourism and the economic climate of Jefferson County.

“We’ll be lucky to have 170, 160, maybe even 150 races this year with the further cuts,” Funkhouser said.

State Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, who has been a proponent of the horse racing industry for quite some time, said cutting the purse funds is immoral.

“Problems with the live racing are 100 percent caused by the actions of the Legislature in the last five years or so,” Snyder said. “They’re destroying confidence in an industry that has been built up over the last two decades. (The racing industry) has constantly been picked away at, and I’m vehemently opposed to that.”

Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, said it’s upsetting that the racing industry is being attacked by lawmakers.

“It’s a vicious cycle. The less revenue sharing into the purse funds, the less money there will be available to go to our local breeders. It’s a downward spiral,” Skinner said. “It’s unfortunate that we have to be at this point, but the leadership seems bent on eliminating thoroughbred racing. The bottom line is the budget cuts purse funds. It was unnecessary and could have been avoided.”

While the loss in purse funding will affect tourism in the Eastern Panhandle, Funkhouser said it will also affect local individuals.

“The horse industry provides a ready market for all the hay and straw grown by farmers in the area. Horses consume a bale of straw and a half a bale of hay every day, and there are hundreds of horses on some of the farms around here,” Funkhouser said. “(Because of the continued cuts to purse funds), I predict 75 percent of farms in the Eastern Panhandle won’t be running five years down the road. Some of the bigger farms will survive, but many smaller farms will have a rough time, and that land will be developed, making this area more like northern Virginia. I don’t think anyone in Jefferson County wants that.”

Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, echoed the sentiments of his Jefferson County colleagues.

“Charles Town is going to be facing its most intense competition with the scheduled opening of MGM Casino at National Harbor (in Prince George’s County, Md.),” Espinosa said. “It is certainly concerning any time when budget cuts adversely affect the casinos and horsemen, and it’s definitely a huge concern for us in the Eastern Panhandle. I plan to continue my efforts to avoid further decreases (in purse funds).”

Funkhouser said he would like to see the horsemen and racing industry gain legislative power to pass certain bills that could make the industry thrive in future years.

“I think it’s unfair and a trail of broken promises by each governor and legislator,” Funkhouser said. “It could be an easy fix if they could give us legislative powers to pass things. Some of those would give us a chance to make a million here and a million there. We’re just going to keep getting cut.”

Funkhouser said some of the things he would like to see implemented by the racing industry to increase revenue and purse funds are different types of pari-mutuel wagering.

Pari-mutuel wagering is a betting system in which players buy tickets for horses they predict to win, and a payoff is made to winners from a pool of bets after operator’s commission and taxes are deducted.

“Here, we’ve done everything we can to preserve the purse structure. We’ve had to adjust and reduce it over the years, but next year we’re going to have to downgrade it again,” Funkhouser said. “People don’t come here anymore from other places. Our biggest contention is we wish we were given the legislative tools to grow this industry, but (the Legislature) never does.”