Conflict Over Charles Town Project Resurfaces

Just weeks before work is to begin on banking the turns of the racing surface at Charles Town Races & Slots, a new organization called "The Thoroughbred Club" claims a survey reveals support for expansion of the six-furlong track to seven furlongs.

The club, formed to gather information on horse racing in West Virginia, in a July 12 press release said 2,750 members of the Charles Town Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, and 150 members of the West Virginia Thoroughbred Breeders Association, were asked for their opinions. The club said more than 800 horsemen responded, with 80% in favor of a seven-furlong track. Three-quarters of those who want the seven-furlong track also want a turf course, the club said.

The issue isn't a new one. In 2003, Dick Watson, former president of the Charles HBPA, advocated a plan whereby horsemen and track owner Penn National Gaming Inc. would split the cost of expanding the circumference of the racing surface and perhaps add a grass course. It became an issue during the HBPA election late last year, and Ann Hilton unseated Watson.

The Hilton campaign claimed Watson didn't go the full HBPA membership for a vote on the plan. Watson agreed to back off and solicit input but was ousted before the vote. The current board, however, apparently signed off on the PNGI plan in May without a vote of the general membership.

Watson had planned to use about $5 million of a $10-million purse underpayment to pay the horsemen's share of the expansion project. He also devised a scheme whereby racing could be held at neighboring Shenandoah Downs, now a training facility, while Charles Town was closed in an effort to maintain the year-round racing calendar.

PNGI, which is in line for a license to install slot machines at Penn National Race Course in Pennsylvania, plans to close Charles Town for about three weeks beginning Aug. 2. Charles Town has had video lottery terminals since the late 1990s, and its purses have lured horses away from Penn National, which has a mile dirt track and seven-furlong turf course.

PNGI also plans to build a three-eighths-mile training track to replace the five-furlong surface at old Shenandoah, and provide 240 additional stalls. The company said the $7-million project has been in the works for more than five years; Watson has told the media his plan had the support of PNGI.

According to the Associated Press, a PNGI official called The Thoroughbred Club a "splinter group." Hilton, who took office in January, has taken a leave of absence, but acting HBPA president Wayne Harrison said the club's survey is "just causing headaches."

In a July 2 letter to horsemen, Charles Town management said it recognizes that not everyone agrees with the plan to keep the six-furlong circumference and only bank the turns. "If that is the case, we respect your right to move your horses to a track more to your liking, and we would appreciate the courtesy of prior notice," the letter said.

The club took offense to that statement, and in its press release said it believes the only way racing at Charles Town can be considered anything other than minor league is if the track circumference is extended to provide "safe and attractive racing." It called the situation "appalling."

Meanwhile, the $10-million purse underpayment in place in January has dwindled to about $700,000. In fact, purses were reduced a bit for the most recent condition book. Use of the purse money--the percentage of increases and the number of them, for instance--also was an issue in the 2003 election.