Alabama HBPA Fight for Live Racing Not Easy

The horsemen's group is continually stymied in efforts to return racing to state.

It doesn’t appear live Thoroughbred racing will return to Birmingham Race Course any time soon, but the re-energized Alabama Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association said it plans to keep pushing for it.

Alabama horse racing—or the lack thereof—has been dominated by lawsuits and battles between horsemen’s groups since the late 1990s. Live horse racing was last held at Birmingham in 1995, but Greyhound racing continues at the track owned by Milton McGregor.

The Alabama Supreme Court in August 2009 affirmed a state circuit ruling that vacated the 2006 Alabama HBPA election and forced a new vote. In March 2011 the National HBPA recognized the new leadership of the Alabama HBPA, but the group continues to face resistance in its home state.

“We had a substantial win (in the court-ordered election), which shows we have the horsemen’s support,” said Dr. David Harrington, president of the Alabama HBPA. “Our number one goal is to return live racing to Birmingham.”

It hasn’t been easy. The former leaders of the Alabama HBPA—trainer Skip Drinkard and attorney Mike Wallace—in early 2011 announced formation of Alabama Racing Thoroughbreds Inc. They said the organization has “a large membership of Alabama residents and non-residents who support Alabama-bred racing.”

ART said it had a contract with McGregor, who also owns the Victoryland Greyhound Park, and was continuing to receive monthly payments from simulcast revenue of about $125,000 a year. In earlier court testimony before the horsemen’s election was vacated, individuals alleged much of the funds paid by McGregor were used for personal business rather than HBPA business.

In a letter to the National HBPA in March 2011, Wallace, listed as general counsel for ART, said the group is solely interested in promoting the Thoroughbred industry. “Our organization has no interest whatsoever in the controversial election of the Alabama HBPA and has no comment or opinion on same.”

In June of last year Drinkard said ART represents horsemen in Alabama, has a contract with the Jefferson County Racing Association—owner of Birmingham Race Course—and that the contract was approved by the Birmingham Racing Commission, which is housed at the racetrack. The BRC, however, indicated it recognized the Alabama HBPA as the horsemen’s representative in the state, according to meeting minutes.

The new leadership of the Alabama HBPA, despite comments from Drinkard, Wallace, and others, contends there never was a plan to restore live horse racing at Birmingham. Harrington said ART was formed “to continue to do what they can to prevent live racing from returning.”

McGregor, as far back as the early 2000s, said he planned to restore live horse racing at Birmingham if he was able to install gaming machines. The track still has no approval to install the devices.

The current Alabama HBPA has run into other roadblocks, such as obtaining information from the old regime. In 2010 a fire at Drinkard’s farm in Hartselle, Ala., claimed the lives of 10 horses and apparently destroyed the HBPA records that were stored there.

No entity has applied for live horse racing dates at Birmingham, and the Alabama HBPA, despite being recognized by the National HBPA, isn’t receiving simulcast revenue from Birmingham Race Course.

“They’re not paying anything to horsemen,” Harrington said.

Birmingham and other outlets in Alabama take bets on Thoroughbred racing even though there is no live meet in the state. The Alabama HBPA last June filed suit against the JCRA for maintaining an “unlawful monopoly” on live racing and paying a pittance--$75,000 a year—despite $32.46 million in pari-mutuel handle at Birmingham alone in 2010.

The JCRA countersued the Alabama HBPA and other horsemen’s groups that have pulled their approval for racing signals to be sent to the state.

Birmingham continues to offer full-card simulcasts of all breeds of racing, though horsemen’s groups in two major racing states—Florida and Kentucky—no longer permit their signals to be sent to Birmingham or VictoryLand given that revenue from Thoroughbred signals doesn’t support live horse racing in the state.

“The nonsense had gone on long enough,” said one out-of-state horsemen’s representative who didn’t want to be identified because of ongoing legal action regarding simulcasts. “We want something to go to purses, or at least have money escrowed for live racing.”

Horsemen under the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 have the right to withhold approval for signals to be sent to other wagering outlets.

Phil Hanrahan, chief executive officer for the National HBPA, said the organization couldn’t discuss the matter because of the legal action.

“There is ongoing litigation,” Hanrahan said, “and in the scope of ongoing litigation, we have to let it play out in the courts.”

The BRC in 1997 approved a request from McGregor to scrap an escrow account derived from 5% of simulcast revenue from 1995-96. The account, with interest, stood at $1.5 million in 2010.

The commission in 2010 gave the JCRA $400,000 for “improvements” at Birmingham, and in 2012 it gave McGregor another $150,000 from the account.

McGregor was indicted in 2010 in a case involving campaign contributions but in March 2012 was acquitted. Then, in May, a federal jury in Alabama handed down a $64 million claim against McGregor and VictoryLand in a civil suit connected to the vote-buying indictments.

McGregor’s attorneys told Alabama news outlets an appeal was planned. VictoryLand was forced to pull the plug on thousands of electronic bingo games in 2010 and also suspended live dog racing, but the track continues to offer full-card simulcasts.

The only other Alabama track with live racing is Mobile Greyhound Park. A facility called Greenetrack no longer has live dog racing but imports simulcast races and has about 300 electronic bingo machines.

Each county in Alabama that has a racetrack has its own racing commission. The Mobile County Racing Commission is the only one to have a membership in the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

Meanwhile, Alabama HBPA board of directors this spring approved bonuses for the owners of Alabama-bred Thoroughbreds that finish first through fourth in any open races in the United States. Winners get $400, followed by $300 for second, $200 for third, and $100 for fourth.

The board also approved a supplement of up to $500 per horse to go toward transportation expenses for horses that finish fourth through 12th in an Alabama-bred race. The last such race was held Dec. 9, 2011, at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, where the $35,000 Kudzu Juvenile for 2-year-olds attracted a field of four.

The absence of live racing has greatly impacted the breeding of Thoroughbreds in the state if statistics from The Jockey Club are any indication.

Even in 1991, years before Birmingham ended horse racing, the Alabama Thoroughbred foal crop was only 125. In 1995 the foal crop stood at 91 and by 2000 had dropped to 57. In 2010 there were only 45 registered foals in Alabama.