Questions Linger on Alabama Racing

The National HBPA will revisit its 2007 motion regarding its Alabama affiliate.

As reports have surfaced that Birmingham Race Course in Alabama may again seek to install electronic bingo games, the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association will take yet another look at the status of the Alabama HBPA, which continues to say a return of live Thoroughbred racing to Birmingham is possible.

Birmingham Race Course hasn’t offered live horse racing since 1995, though it has continued to offer live Greyhound racing and simulcasts of Thoroughbred racing. Since the mid- to late 1990s, the Alabama HBPA has received about $120,000 a year from track owner Milton McGregor to maintain horse-race simulcasts at the facility.

The Associated Press recently reported McGregor has struck a deal with Greenetrack, a former Alabama dog track that now has hundreds of electronic bingo machines that resemble video lottery terminals or slot machines. The machines are permitted at Greenetrack and VictoryLand, an operating Greyhound track, but not at Birmingham.

Greenetrack had fought installation of bingo machines at Birmingham because of the competition they could bring, the Associated Press reported, but Greenetrack could partner with McGregor. (The two facilities are about 90 miles apart.) Birmingham at one point had electronic “sweepstakes” machines but had to remove them by order of the state Supreme Court.

A Birmingham Racing Commission official told the Associated Press the gaming issue could be on the November 2008 ballot.

Talk of the return of live horse racing to Birmingham is hardly new, but nothing of substance has come of it. In the meantime, there has been turmoil in the Alabama HBPA, whose operational and financial practices have been repeatedly questioned and challenged in court by opponents, some of whom attempted to form a new organization to represent horsemen.

In February 2007, the National HBPA accepted the 2006 election results of the Alabama HBPA but said the group must be more transparent, hold regular meetings, provide financial reports, and be aggressive in seeking to bring back live horse racing to Birmingham. The results of that election had been challenged.

In March 2007, a judge in Circuit Court of Jefferson County, Alabama, ruled the 2006 election be “set aside and vacated,” and a new election held within 90 days under the direction of a “special master.” Also, the Alabama HBPA would have to pick up expenses for the election.

That ruling came about after Alabama residents and others presented information indicating the horsemen’s group was in disarray and not following bylaws.

The ongoing legal battle continued, and a stay was granted. In fact, in late 2007, the Alabama HBPA was able to card two Alabama-bred races at out-of-state tracks--as has been the practice for many years--even though the March 2007 court order said the organization “shall not disburse its funds pending the election of officers and directors” unless authorized by the court.

“The court says we can conduct business as usual,” Alabama HBPA president Elbert “Skip” Drinkard said in a recent interview at Turfway Park, where one of the Alabama-bred stakes was held. “Word was coming out from our opponents that the money was frozen. We ran a nice race with a full field. We hope to have (another stakes) back here, and have been invited to Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, and Colonial Downs.”

The $55,000 Magic City Classic for 3-year-olds and up at Turfway in late November was won by owner/breeder Ken Robinette’s Ack Magical, trained by William Hicks. In December, the $45,000 Kudzu Juvenile for 2-year-olds was won by first-time starter Royal Diana, a filly bred by Bobby Pruitt, trained by Larry Jones, and owned by Dr. Diane Harrington.

Harrington is among those that have questioned the practices of the Alabama HBPA and has worked to bring about transparency. They made their case to National HBPA hearing officers before the 2006 election was upheld by the umbrella organization.

When asked about the ongoing battle between the current Alabama HBPA board of directors and its opponents, Drinkard said: “That’s never going to cease. It’s going to be an ongoing thing.”

The relative lack of progress on the live racing front and ongoing disputes haven’t been lost on the National HBPA, which will hold its winter convention Jan. 25-28 in New Orleans. The National HBPA executive committee is to receive an update from counsel on the Alabama situation Jan. 27 to see if the organization has complied with its directives in the past year.

Attorney Peter Ecabert, who has handled the situation for the National HBPA, will provide a report, National HBPA chief executive officer Remi Bellocq said.

“We’re going to ask him to report back to the executive committee in regard to the motion we passed in 2007,” Bellocq said. “There has been discussion (about the Alabama situation) among different groups, and we want to be consistent. Have they held meetings?

“One of the key things was for (the Alabama HBPA) to show us some kind of indication there is going to be live racing again. They know this is not an open-ended thing.”

Drinkard expressed optimism about a November 2008 referendum and having “enough votes” when the Alabama legislature returns to session in February.

During the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States meeting in early January, Alabama Rep. Mac Gibson noted Birmingham Race Course ownership is seeking “Class II bingo machines on the caveat they will bring back live racing. This is what we’re being asked to do to revive Thoroughbred racing.”

Similar legislative attempts have failed in Alabama.