Horsemen’s groups are rallying around a couple banned from Charles Town Races & Slots in West Virginia because of what the track owner terms integrity issues.
Affiliates of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association have agreed to write a letter to Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns Charles Town, and copy it to the West Virginia Racing Commission concerning the exclusion of Dick and Janene Watson. The husband and wife have been banned from the track for more than two years.
It remains to be seen what the letter will say, but the National HBPA board endorsed the writing of the letter during its Jan. 28 board meeting in New Orleans.
PNGI claims the exclusion stems from events in 2004, when the Charles Town Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association sued Dick Watson, then the president of the group, largely for allegedly misusing funds. On June 14 of that year, the Charles Town HBPA issued a release saying Watson admitted to making personal loans; using an HBPA vehicle at his farm; paying retirement benefits, bonuses, and vacation funds to his wife, who at the time was executive director of the HBPA; using HBPA money to pay personal bills, and later repaying the money; and failing to provide audit reports to the HBPA board.
At the time, Watson said the civil suit--he never was charged with a crime--had been mediated and settled. The Charles Town HBPA then expelled Watson and his wife for more than two years; they were officially eligible to rejoin the HBPA Jan. 1, 2007.
To again become members of the association, the Watsons have to run one horse at Charles Town under the rules of the association. To date, they have been unable to do so because of the ban by PNGI.
On Jan. 9, the WVRC said it has no control over PNGI in regard to individuals it chooses to exclude from its property even though the Watsons have been licensed to race in West Virginia.
“There certainly were mistakes made I don’t think any of us would be proud of,” Charles Town HBPA president Randy Funkhouser said in reference to Dick Watson. “But I don’t think Dick did anything that the members of our association wanted to see him thrown out of racing forever.”
An attorney for PNGI has said the company never indicated the exclusion would be permanent and is willing to review it on an annual basis. He also said the company must protect integrity.
Doug McSwain, an attorney for the National HBPA, acknowledged exclusion from private property is a “broad-sweeping right” and not easy to address. He also said the issue could potentially affect any horseman in any state.
“The saga in West Virginia is problematic and a lesson for all of us,” McSwain said.
Funkhouser, one of the top Thoroughbred breeders in West Virginia, has had run-ins with Charles Town management and has been involved in high-profile legal cases involving the track. A few years back, the track pulled some of his stalls.
“As president (of the Charles Town HBPA), I worry about these politically motivated situations,” Funkhouser said. “Dick and I have fought hard for horsemen. Gaming is the 11,000-pound gorilla. If you stand up for horsemen and things that are right, it seems to be a problem.”
The Charles Town HBPA presented a letter to the WVRC Jan. 9 in support of the Watsons. The following week, the horsemen’s group voted to grant them status as honorary members because they can’t officially rejoin until they run a horse.
The Watsons and others also are seeking support for legislation in West Virginia that would not allow a licensee to be banned without just cause.