Peace at Charles Town on Table Games Vote?

Charles Town said it has horsemen's support for a table games referendum.

Charles Town Races & Slots said Oct. 22 it has broad support from Thoroughbred owners and breeders for a Dec. 5 referendum to authorize the West Virginia racetrack to add casino-style table games, but issues that divide management and horsemen remain.

Charles Town sent to media outlets letters of support from three groups: the Charles Town Horsemen’s and Benevolent and Protective Association, West Virginia Thoroughbred Breeders Association, and West Virginia Breeders Classics Ltd. A 2007 referendum on table games failed to pass in Jefferson County in part because horsemen didn’t support it.

“People have asked if the horsemen are on board,” Charles Town general manager Al Britton said in a statement. “We’re happy to report that they are firmly in support of the table games referendum. The horsemen and breeders recognize that the passage of table games is vital to maintaining the racing industry and green space in Jefferson County.”

The letter of support from the Charles Town HBPA is dated Oct. 23, 2008. It states the Charles Town HBPA board of directors “voted to enthusiastically support table gaming” at the track and was signed by Charles Town HBPA president Randy Funkhouser.

Funkhouser in the letter mentioned a “new spirit of cooperation” between horsemen and Charles Town, which is owned by Penn National Gaming Inc. Funkhouser and the company, however, remain at odds despite the 2008 endorsement.

Funkhouser, a top West Virginia owner and breeder who has lost some of his stalls at Charles Town, couldn’t be immediately reached for comment Oct. 23 on whether he and horsemen at large support the gaming measure. Funkhouser and management don’t speak, according to individuals close to the situation.

“Local horsemen took the time to listen and understand why table games are so important to the county and to the racing industry, and we listened to the HBPA and rank-and-file members on issues that were important to them,” Britton said. “Having a dialogue has been extremely positive for both sides.”

Funkhouser and the National HBPA have been active in challenging exclusions at Charles Town. A circuit court recently ruled, however, the West Virginia Racing Commission can’t hold hearings into the banning of Dick and Janene Watson and Patty Burns. There has been no word on whether horsemen or the racing commission will appeal the ruling.

Another trainer who lost stalls at Charles Town but is permitted to race there is Tina Malgarini Mawing, wife of jockey Anthony Mawing. Malgarini Mawing, who didn't lose her stalls because of an infraction, is a member of the Charles Town HBPA board of directors.

Anthony Mawing is one of seven jockeys suspended earlier this year for alleging misrepresenting their weight during races at Charles Town, which used a hidden surveillance camera. With assistance from the Jockeys’ Guild, the jockeys were granted an injunction to ride, and their case continues to make its way through a lengthy WVRC hearing process.

The jockeys, in a letter to Guild national manager Terry Meyocks, indicated the situation is tenuous. All seven are active in the Guild.

“The trend toward racetrack management seems to be less about working together and more about complete control and intimidation,” the letter states. “We genuinely feel that if the Guild were not behind us right now, we would probably be forced to move our families and look elsewhere for other places to continue our careers, if at all.”

Funkhouser, meanwhile, is again running for president of the Charles Town HBPA. His opponent is local developer Kenneth Lowe, a Charles Town HBPA board member and PNGI supporter. Malgarini Mawing also is seeking re-election.

The election results will be known Nov. 17, three weeks before the county vote on table games.

As for the other groups, the WVTBA, attempting to bounce back from what one official in 2008 called “a little embezzlement,” said in an Oct. 15 letter it supports table games.

“A majority of the WVTBA board of directors feels the presence of table games will not only protect the revenue (video lottery terminals at Charles Town) currently generate for West Virginia Thoroughbred breeders but will potentially increase that amount. … Our industry by its very nature protects the county’s farmland and green spaces from further development.”

The West Virginia Breeders Classics, which held its $2-million night of racing Oct. 17 at Charles Town, said table games can add more jobs and boost the horse racing industry.

“There is no doubt the (VLT measure of the mid-1990s) has breathed new life into racing at Charles Town,” a letter from the WVBC states. “PNGI has been a terrific partner with the racing industry and has lived up to its promises to the community as a whole.”

Charles Town, in an attempt to win horsemen’s support, is adding a 10th race to each live program effective Nov. 1. Officials said first preference will be given to horses bred or sired in West Virginia; second preference will go to horses having made a minimum number of starts at Charles Town.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin was in Charles Town recently to discuss the table games referendum. In an August interview at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort, the governor touched on relations between horsemen and management at Charles Town.

“It’s about personalities there, and we can’t have that in a state that depends on that revenue,” Manchin said at the time. “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.”

Manchin also said: “We built our racinos around the sport of racing. 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.”

Charles Town is the only one of four West Virginia racetracks without table games, but its VLT operation is by far the most lucrative in the state.

Horsemen get 4.5% of revenue from table games in West Virginia. In a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, Jeff Runco, leading trainer at Charles Town and a member of the Charles Town HBPA board of directors, said table games would produce about $4.8 million for purses and breed development each year. The letter didn’t state the origin of the financial estimate.