CT Classic purse approved at $1.2M, but panel calls for evaluation

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Feb. 5, 2018

The West Virginia Racing Commission Feb. 5 reversed an earlier decision and approved the requested $1.2 million purse for this year’s grade II Charles Town Classic, but it also said it will create a focus group to determine whether the payout is in the best interest of all stakeholders in the state’s racing and breeding industry.

The three-member commission in late January voted to not approve the purse as well as the complete 2018 stakes schedule at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races. The motion by Ken Lowe, who offered a plan whereby Charles Town could pay $1.2 million if it matched half of the purse, was seconded by John Figaretti; Chairman Jack Rossi did not have to vote given the fact the motion passed on two votes.

Soon after, Gov. Jim Justice weighed in and called for the WVRC to rescind its decision. It did so Feb. 5 on votes by Figaretti and Rossi. Lowe did not vote.

“There has been a lot of consternation about this issue,” Rossi said. “I know the race has been there for years, but times are changing. The racing commission has a duty to assure that the resources being allocated are being utilized to the best extent. In May or June we’re going to appoint a focus group to look at how resources can be allocated and best utilized to benefit the racing industry in West Virginia.”

Lowe, a Thoroughbred owner and breeder, did vote to approve the complete stakes schedule for this year, but he called for a serious review of not only the Classic purse but overall revenue for racing and breeding.

“As of the racing commission we are responsible for regulating and promoting this industry,” Lowe said. “Racing goes hand in hand with Thoroughbred breeding. Let’s not forget that the voters of Jefferson County (where Charles Town is located) approved video lottery terminals and table games with written and verbal promises that revenue from casino play will be shared with horse racing and breeding.”

Lowe said he approved the stakes schedule with the belief that additional revenue would be put into purses, and that the Classic purse be re-evaluated via the focus group.

Charles Town management earlier outlined the trickle-down impact the Classic has had on business levels and also discussed its importance of the race to the track’s brand in the national marketplace. The Classic is the second-richest race in the Mid-Atlantic region behind the Preakness Stakes in Maryland.

Rossi said he wants Charles Town, after the Classic is run April 21, “to give us a thorough evaluation of expectations and whether those expectations were met, and provide us with new ideas going forward.”

Charles Town and the Charles Town Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association have a contract that allows the track to use 8% of purse funds for stakes as management sees fit. That contract is up for renewal later this year.

The Charles Town HBPA did not weigh in on the Classic purse dispute, but Mountaineer HBPA President Jami Poole did so after the Feb. 5 vote.

“With us cutting dates every year, we have to ask if these stakes are worth it in the end,” Poole said. “That’s a lot of racing days taken from Charles Town horsemen. We have to ask ourselves, ‘Can we cut stakes at bit—not just that stakes—to have more racing dates for horsemen?’ ”

West Virginia is unusual in that over the past three years or so, horsemen have gone along with or actually pushed for reductions in dates in order to maintain competitive purse levels. At Mountaineer, which hosts the grade III $750,000 West Virginia Derby, the Mountaineer HBPA has led the effort to form a year-round circuit with Hollywood Casino at Mahoning Valley Race Course, which is located only 45 minutes away in Ohio and races from November through mid-April.

Rossi said there is plenty of blame to go around for the fact that schedules and dates requests are often submitted at the last minute.

“I blame all you guys and I blame us,” Rossi said. “There should be a plan for racing three years in advance, not 30 days in advance.”

(Charles Town photo by Tom LaMarra)