Charles Town horsemen issue self-destructive threat

Two decades ago, the state’s horse and greyhound racing industries were on their last legs.  Interest in racing had waned to where it was questionable whether the state’s four tracks could remain open.

Along came slot machines, followed later by table games and, voila, racing was saved.  In fact, a big selling point for advocates of expanding gambling was that it would keep the tracks in business.

The horsemen and greyhound breeders have benefited from more customers at the tracks and a healthy subsidy from the state.  In 2013, the racing industry received $87.6 million in subsidies from other forms of gaming, with the biggest share going toward prize money.

This year, Governor Tomblin proposed cutting the subsidy by 15 percent to help balance the budget.  Naturally, that upset the racing industry, but it also produced a threat from the Charles Town Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA).

In a letter to Jefferson County Senator Herb Snyder, HBPA president Randy Funkhouser said his members had agreed to Snyder’s amendment calling for a 10 percent cut in the purse and development funds, but no more.

“In consideration of passage of your amendment, the Charles Town HBPA pledges as a group to not circulate petitions in Jefferson County for a referendum recall on gaming issues as it pertains to this particular amendment,” Funkhouser wrote.

So let’s see, if the horsemen did not get their way, they were going to push for the removal of slots from the track?  That’s like burning the village to save it.

The Governor and the Legislature eventually agreed to a ten percent cut to the horsemen and dog owners.  It’s important to remember that next year’s budget also cuts higher education by 3.75 percent, many other state agencies by seven percent and takes $120 million from the Rainy Day emergency fund.

Slots saved the Charles Town track.  Horse racing is an important industry in the eastern panhandle, but it’s only marginally profitable at the track.  Slots and table games account for the big money that keeps the place running and subsidizes the horsemen.

Without other forms of gambling, the Charles Town race track would likely not exist, and if it did, it would be greatly diminished.  Instead of fretting about a 10 percent reduction of their subsidy, the horsemen would have to cope with the end of their industry in the eastern panhandle.

Plus, Funkhouser’s letter had a nasty “or else” tone.  It angered a number of lawmakers and it rings hollow with owners and operators of nearly every other business in the state that have to survive without a substantial state subsidy.

The horsemen may also be overestimating their clout.  The track and casino employ 1,700 people.  They have families, mortgages and car payments.  It’s hard to imagine how they, or the rest of Jefferson County, would put the entire operation at risk to save the horsemen a few bucks.

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