Horsemen Wary of 'Arbitrary' Exclusions

Horsemen  Wary of 'Arbitrary' Exclusions
Photo: Charles Town Races
Dick and Janene Watson

The growth of casino-style gaming at racetracks has brought with it executives with little or no experience in horse racing, something horsemen said makes them more vulnerable to exclusionary practices.

The National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association discussed exclusions and ejections during a legal forum held July 2 as part of its summer convention in Shepherdstown, W.Va. The convention was held about 20 minutes from Charles Town Races & Slots, where the National HBPA is assisting three individuals excluded by management.

National HBPA general counsel Doug McSwain said the crux of the matter is "arbitrary" exclusions that could be rooted in intimidation, favoritism, or “irrational fears.” Racetracks say they have the right of absolute refusal, while horsemen believe they have a right of review should action be taken, McSwain said.

The West Virginia exclusion cases involve Dick and Janene Watson, the former president and executive director, respectively, of the Charles Town HPBA; and Patty Burns, a trainer at Charles Town. All three are West Virginia Racing Commission licensees.

McSwain said state entities like racing commissions usually have plenary regulatory authority, including disputes involving two licensees involved in racing. Under that contention, a commission-licensed racetrack can’t be granted absolute power, he said, because one licensee would get preference over the other.

The West Virginia case will play out further July 8 in Kanawha County, W.Va., Circuit Court. Charles Town owner Penn National Gaming Inc. has sued to keep the WVRC from holding hearings on the exclusion of the Watsons and Burns. PNGI took legal action after the commission ruled to grant hearings.

Whatever the outcome in circuit court, an appeal is expected.

“The West Virginia case is going to be one of the lynchpins,” McSwain said. “This one is going to have some legal precedence.”

The Watsons have been barred from Charles Town property for almost four years, and Burns for more than a year.

Dick Watson, then president of the Charles Town HBPA, was sued by the organization for allegedly misappropriating funds. The suit alleged Janene Watson, then executive director of the local HBPA, was a co-conspirator.

The suit was settled after Dick Watson apologized and admitted loaning himself HBPA money without approval of the board of directors. In August 2005, Dick Watson’s membership in the Charles Town HBPA was suspended, and three weeks later, Charles Town barred the Watsons from track property.

The couple have bred, owned, and trained horses at Charles Town for more than 25 years. They lost their stalls when the ejection order was issued.

Burns, according to court documents, was arrested in February 2007 for being a party in an altercation in the Charles Town barn area, and in July of that year, track officials found syringes in Burns’ barn after an inspection. The board of stewards suspended Burns, a trainer, for 30 days, but in February 2008, Charles Town management ejected her.

Attorneys for PNGI, during a WVRC meeting in January 2008, argued the Watsons were banned because of integrity issues. Horsemen have argued the issues had nothing to do with the racetrack and ultimately were resolved by the local HBPA.

Charles Town HBPA president Randy Funkhouser, who has sparred with track management and lost some stalls over the years, said plenary powers are granted by statute, and the WVRC can act as a mediator.

“The racetrack says if we don’t like it, get out,” Funkhouser said. “That, in our way of thinking, is denial of due process and just cause. It’s also a form of manipulation and intimidation.”

Funkhouser said the Watsons, while in office, served two functions—protecting horsemen and preserving their rights. “At times, maybe they were too strong for racetrack management,” he said. “But at the same time, Dick Watson was a strong advocate for the racetrack; he was a credible voice when he came forth (on the track’s behalf).

“This is a situation that has become worrisome and intolerable to us as well as the people at (Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in West Virginia) and racetracks everywhere. We were working together as a partnership, but this situation has created a lot of animosity.”

Bob Jeffries, president of the Tampa Bay HBPA, said relations between the track and horsemen have come a long way since some trainers were denied stalls in 1999-2000. Contract negotiations were dicey for several years, but now, horsemen and management work together, he said.

Jeffries said that in 2001, he applied for stalls at Delaware Park but was denied because he was said to be a “troublemaker.” Two days later, he got stalls after individuals called to vouch for him, he said.

During the standoff with Tampa management, national horsemen’s representatives were denied access to the track and had to meet with local horsemen in a field. Jeffries said involvement by the National HBPA may have saved the HBPA at Tampa Bay Downs.

The Arizona HBPA has an anti-discrimination clause in its contract but is currently in a battle with Turf Paradise owner Jerry Simms. Tom Metzen Sr., who has filled in as executive director of the Arizona HBPA, said he and others have been threatened with ejection.

The contract between Turf Paradise, which re-opens for live racing in September, and the Arizona HBPA expired May 31.

Terry Walker, president of the New Mexico Horsemen’s Association, said some industry officials in the state were against the group affiliating with the National HBPA two years ago. He was told he probably would lose stalls at tracks in New Mexico.

“Nobody wants to say much because they know they’ll get their stalls cut,” Walker said. “Without stalls, you can’t operate. And we helped the racetracks get the casinos (in New Mexico).”

Such was the case in the mid-1990s at Charles Town. Horsemen supported a county referendum on racetrack video lottery terminals, and the measure passed. Two years ago, they didn't support a referendum for table games at Charles Town, and the measure failed.

Kentucky HBPA president Rick Hiles talked of several high-profile legal battles in the Bluegrass State, but said they worked out for the best.

“In Kentucky, there’s a silver lining,” Hiles said. “The tracks and the horsemen have become partners.”

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