The governor of West Virginia, on hand for the Aug. 1 West Virginia Derby (gr. II) at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort, said gaming at tracks was built around racing, and the sport won’t be allowed to suffer in exchange for company profits.
Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin III, who presented trophies in the winner’s circle after the Derby and West Virginia Governor’s Stakes, arrived at Mountaineer July 31 for a private reception. On Derby Day, he was one of more than 30 lawmakers and state officials at the track.
In between races, Manchin spoke to a couple of reporters about the state of racing in West Virginia. Mountaineer is a sort of “ground zero” for racetrack gaming, having installed the first video lottery terminals in 1990.
The state has two Thoroughbred tracks—the other is Charles Town Races & Slots—and two Greyhound tracks. All of them have VLTs; Charles Town is the only one without table games, which like VLTs require a county vote.
“In our law, there is mandatory reinvestment,” Manchin said. “There is generous (revenue) for owners and breeders. If the state gets greedy, the industry won’t be able to develop. There has to be some money being spent and reinvested (on racing stock and facility capital improvements), and I think we do it as well or better than other states.”
In the original VLT law, Mountaineer and Charles Town got 15.5% for purses and breed development. Earlier in this decade, state government began taking money from purse accounts to fund a workers’ compensation program. The percentage varies depending on the time of the year; purses on average now get about 10%.
Barring a change in the law, tracks must offer racing to have VLTs.
“We built our racinos around the sport of racing,” Manchin said. “When any racino operator does it strictly for the money and not the sport, we will shut them down. It’s a blend; we look for a balance. If not, the horses wouldn’t be here, and what we see today wouldn’t be here.
“I’m happy we’re able to do what we’re doing (with racing). But things are happening in Ohio and Kentucky. The bottom line is competition is good.”
Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland has authorized the Ohio Lottery to implement racetrack VLTs, and in Kentucky, the push for racetrack gaming is expected to continue. Both states border West Virginia, and racing and breeding officials noted that horses are leaving their states to race in West Virginia.
Manchin said he’s friends with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky.
“I was talking to Steve Beshear, and he said, ‘You’re taking all of our good horses,’ " Manchin said. "I said that we’ve been very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. We’ve got to be very competitive.
"I said, ‘Steve, we just want to share with you; you have so many good horses in Kentucky. We don’t want to take (your horse industry); we just want you to share a little bit.”
Manchin was asked about the ongoing strain between the Charles Town Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and management at Charles Town, the most lucrative track in the state in terms of VLT revenue. Horsemen and management have been at odds for years.
“It’s about personalities there, and we can’t have that in a state that depends on that revenue,” Manchin said. “We've been able to expand services for our seniors. To allow personalities to make that much of a disturbance is absolutely wrong, and I’m going to do everything I can to change that.”
This year marked the first West Virginia Derby held under a new regime at Mountaineer. Edson “Ted” Arneault, the former president and chief executive officer, left MTR Gaming Group last October and was replaced by Robert Griffin.
Arneault, a promoter who served as the “face” and "voice" of Mountaineer in all promotional materials, enjoys horse racing and advocated live television coverage of the West Virginia Derby, which this year was broadcast on FOX Sports Net and in previous years on ESPN. Arneault was on hand for this year’s $750,000 Derby.
Griffin, during a champagne toast after the Derby, indicated the tradition of Mountaineer’s premier race would continue.
“We’re thrilled to host you,” Griffin said. “We look forward to seeing a lot of you folks here next year.”