A proposal by Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort to end December horse racing was rejected Friday by the West Virginia Racing Commission, which suggested instead a year-long reduction in the number of daily races.
An opinion written by hearing examiner Jeff Blaydes, and accepted by the racing commission, said Mountaineer had "not met the burden of showing that there would be a shortage of thoroughbreds," and, therefore, Mountaineer's request to reduce the number of racing days from 210 to 196 should be denied.
The commission said Mountaineer should, instead, immediately reduce the number of races per day from nine to eight as a cost-saving measure; consider reducing purses as soon as practicable; and revise, with the horsemen's input, the condition book to maximize resources.
A last-minute modification to Blaydes' opinion by the commission, after meeting for 80 minutes in executive session, said Mountaineer would not be obligated to run any more races should purse funds run out.
"I realize that Mountaineer is in a bad way," commission member Bill Phillips said. "The horsemen would be in a bad way if we didn't have racing in December. It seems that the hearing examiner has struck a middle ground that would give Mountaineer the ability to further develop their case."
Mountaineer's request to eliminate the 14 racing days in December was driven by concerns over a shrinking field size, increasing competition from racetrack casinos in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and reductions in the purse fund that horsemen rely on for winnings.
Earlier this year, West Virginia 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 took effect July 1, will cut an estimated $2.5 million annually from the horsemen's purse fund.
The purse fund took another hit in May when the Legislature decided to restore $1.06 million in funding to children's programs by authorizing a one-time reduction from the purse fund.
Mountaineer Director of Racing Rose Mary Williams told commissioners in July that she can't run races without a sufficient purse fund and that shortening the racing calendar was the best way to keep the purse account solvent.
Neither Williams nor John W. Baird, president of the Mountaineer Park Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, could be reached for comment.