The West Virginia Racing Commission June 17 overturned a woman's almost nine-year ban from Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races and tabled action on a similar ejection of her husband.
Dick and Janene Watson were ejected from Charles Town in September 2005 on the basis of what management called "integrity" issues related to their tenure as president and executive director, respectively, of the Charles Town Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.
The horsemen's group filed civil suit against Dick Watson in 2004 alleging unauthorized loans and purchases while he was president of the organization. The case was settled privately for $3,000. Watson, who repeatedly said there were no violations of Charles Town HBPA bylaws, wasn't charged with a crime.
Watson and his wife have since been welcomed back to the Charles Town HBPA as honorary members. They can't be actual members until they run a horse at Charles Town, something they've been unable to do since 2005.
Their ejection appeals were heard together earlier this year but treated as separate cases. Hearing officer Jeff Blaydes recommended an end to the exclusion of Janene Watson, 77. But he recommended the exclusion of Dick Watson, 80, continue because he didn't appear to take responsibility for his actions regarding HBPA finances.
Dick Watson would have the option to again appeal his ejection in one year.
The WVRC, at its June 17 meeting, quickly voted to uphold the hearing officer's recommendation in the case of Janene Watson, but not before she attempted to speak and was declared out of order and told security may be called. The commission did, however, take comments from Charles Town HBPA president Randy Funkhouser, who made members aware of a state racing regulation that contradicts their intent to allow Janene Watson back at Charles Town.
The regulations reads: "The association's racing secretary shall not accept any entry from spouses while either is disqualified from racing. For the purpose of this rule, spouses shall be considered as one."
"This is the problem she was trying to express," Funkhouser said. "The problem is if she is allowed back on the track, she can't race her horses."
Dick and Janene Watson, who have remained licensed by the WVRC during their ban, have owned, bred, and trained racehorses. They have been permitted to race at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort, also in West Virginia, and at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course in Pennsylvania. They have chosen not to do so, they say, because their stable of West Virginia-bred horses has been based in Charles Town for decades.
Funkhouser also spoke on behalf of Dick Watson.
"All the debts he had were paid," Funkhouser said. "He's a decorated military colonel who is now 80 years old and in poor health. He never committed a felony or was charged (with a crime). Personally I think nine years is a long time to disqualify someone."
The WVRC was prepared to uphold Blaydes' recommendation in the Dick Watson case until it was told about the regulation that says spouses are treated as one entity.
"I was prepared to vote but the comments made here changed my view," WVRC member Bill Phillips said. "I think this rule needs to be looked at."
Kelli Talbott, senior deputy attorney general for the WVRC, said she would review the regulation but noted it may not even apply in the Watson case. She also said she believes Blaydes didn't intend for Janene Watson to be kept from racing horses at Charles Town when he prepared his recommendations.
The regulation on spouses wasn't brought up during the appeal hearing. The WVRC tabled the Dick Watson vote and sent the case back to Blaydes so he can consider the ramifications of the regulation on his recommendations.
The WVRC's power to review ejections issued by racetrack came about through a West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruling in November 2011. But litigation continues.
Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns Charles Town, believes it has the right to eject persons from its properties. It has appealed to the court of appeals a 2013 circuit court ruling that upheld the WVRC's right to promulgate rules to cover ejection hearings. The company's appeal was accepted.
PNGI argues, among other things, that the WVRC rule on hearing exclusion appeals requires legislative approval.