Discussions are underway at the State Capitol about how West Virginia gets out of the dog racing business. “Something is going to be done; it’s just a matter of time,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mike Hall (R-Putnam).
A recent independent study by Spectrum Gaming Group chronicled the epic decline of greyhound racing at the tracks in Wheeling and Cross Lanes. Wagering has dropped from $35 million in 2003 to just $16 million in 2013. Attendance has declined from over 900,000 people annually to just 13,000 (though some in the greyhound industry question those attendance figures).
West Virginia uses a portion of the proceeds from other forms of gambling to subsidize greyhound racing. The most recent figures show $10.5 million going toward prize money and $3.3 million to the Greyhound Development Fund which supports the breeders.
Hall and others in the leadership are working on several different options:
1) Cut off payments to the breeders fund and at some point begin phasing out the subsidy of the purses. 2) Eliminate payments to the breeder’s fund and the purses, but offer a buyout to qualifying breeders. 3) Do nothing.
Hall is among those who believe the industry is fading and the money should be recouped, but he’s not willing to rush a decision. “We do not want to have an unintended consequence,” he told me Thursday.
Lawmakers and the Tomblin administration are also concerned that simply eliminating the subsidies, which would likely mean the end of greyhound racing, would lead to a protracted legal fight with the breeders over damages incurred.
Governor Tomblin, whose late mother, Freda, benefited from the breeder’s fund for years, acknowledges times have changed. “As the wagering has continued to decline, it’s time we start looking at how we continue with this industry,” he said Thursday on Metronews Talkline.
The West Virginia greyhound industry is divided over the future. Sam Burdette, president of the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association, favors a buyout. However, breeder Lester Raines believes greyhound racing is still viable.
No doubt those opinions were expressed again yesterday during a private meeting between the stakeholders and state Revenue Secretary Bob Kiss.
Meanwhile, the thoroughbred horse racing industry is watching these developments closely. It also gets sizable payments from other forms of gambling—$33.3 million toward purses and $4.8 million to the Thoroughbred Development Fund this year.
Horse racing is more popular than dog racing, and the industry has much more political support, especially from eastern panhandle lawmakers. However, as overall gaming revenues decline because of increasing competition, the horse racing subsidies will likely also appear on lawmakers’ radar.
Odds are against the state subsidizing racing indefinitely.