NEWELL - 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 that 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 that Mountaineer would not be obligated to run any more races should purse funds run out.
"I realize that Mountaineer is in a bad way," said commission member Bill Phillips. "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.
"In order for us to compete, we need to maintain our purses at the current level. Right now, we simply don't have the purse money to run in December," Williams said at July's public hearing in Weirton.
Neither Williams nor John W. Baird, president of the Mountaineer Park Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, could be reached for comment on Friday.
Commissioners' recommendation that Mountaineer switch to eight races a day is similar to a proposal made by HBPA board member Donna Zook but rejected by Williams in July.
Williams said then that such a move would save only $1 million - not nearly enough to make up for $2.6 million in anticipated purse shortfalls.
"It's not an option," Williams told commissioners.
It is unclear whether the commission's action on Friday is legally binding on Mountaineer and, if so, when it becomes effective.
Commissioner Gregory McDermott said it was clear from July's hearing that Mountaineer's request was a matter of some consequence for the horsemen and Hancock County's economy.
"Everyone who appeared and testified was understandably very upset over the prospect of not racing in December. We were all struck by the emotions that were expressed, and I think those emotions were unanimous," he said.
"The undisputed testimony from Mountaineer was that it would not be economically feasible to race in December because there wouldn't be funds left to fund the purses," he said.
Some Mountaineer horsemen reacted favorably to Friday's decision by the racing commission.
"The outcome was great," said Mike Vales, a trainer who has been at Mountaineer for 12 years. "Now we must go to Rose Mary (Williams) and talk to her and try to implement these recommendations."
Vales expressed his opposition to Mountaineer's request - opposition he said was shared by 120 horsemen at Mountaineer - in a letter sent to the racing commission.
Vales said that the 210-day racing calendar is a matter of state law and is not subject to revision as long as it is part of the HBPA contract.
Vales said Mountaineer should consider eliminating three stakes races as a cost-cutting measure, in addition to reducing the number of daily races from nine to eight and possibly cutting the top purses by 10 percent.
Similar measures were adopted by the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, he said.
"This is the same chance the horsemen at Mountaineer are asking for - a chance to negotiate with management. But management refuses to talk with us and come up with a solution that benefits both parties," he said in his letter.