Stall Rental Fees Complicate Mountaineer Negotiations

Thoroughbred racing at Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort is on hold until at least Jan. 19 while track officials try to reach a new five-year contract with the Mountaineer Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. Meanwhile, the track has offered to keep its stable are open with certain conditions, but the HBPA has balked.

The current agreement expired Jan. 1, and Mountaineer cannot resume racing or pari-mutuel wagering until a new deal is in place. Simulcasting at the track has been halted.

Mountaineer has asked the West Virginia Racing Commmission for 210 racing dates for 2004. The HBPA wants a signed agreement for 232 days at 10 races per program. A similar dispute erupted a year ago and ended up in court.

With a contract governing racing operations still unsigned, Mountaineer management has extended an offer to horsemen that allows them to access training facilities and provides Mountaineer with necessary legal protection in the event of a mishap.

"We are concerned for the well-being of horses stabled at Mountaineer while we attempt to reach agreement on a horseman's contract," Mountaineer president Ted Arneault said in a prepared statement, "but as a corporation, we also have an obligation to protect the assets of our company . This proposal opens the training facility to horsemen while addressing the problem of potential litigation."

Mountaineer will now assess a charge of $8 per day per horse stabled at the West Virginia track, according to the release. Horsemen will be required to sign an agreement that includes reimbursement to Mountaineer for training and stall rental, a waiver of liability, and proof horsemen are in compliance with West Virginia workers' compensation laws.

Some of the tracks prominent trainers are said to have paid the fee, but the HBPA doesn't support the move for fear it could set a precedent. (Stall fees aren't charged for horses on the backstretch.) Security officers reportedly were in place the morning of Jan. 4 to ensure those horsemen who wanted access to the racetrack for training had paid the fees.

A Jan. 3 memo from management said horsemen who fail to the sign the agreement would have to remove their horses. The HBPA, in a Jan. 2 release, said to close the track for training "is cruelty to animals, and horses can die if they are unable to be exercised properly."

Lawyer for both sides are scheduled to meet Jan. 6.

Arneault said he believes the new agreements will be in place by Jan. 19, the next scheduled racing date. The programs of Jan. 3-6 were canceled because of the conflict with horsemen. The programs of Jan. 3-4 had already been drawn and lured 184 and 174 horses, respectively, before fields were drawn.

The halt of racing hasn't affected the operation of 3,200 video lottery terminals at the track. That would change if there is no contract by July 1, when the VLT license is up for renewal. Mountaineer has obtained permission from the racing commission to make up any lost days.

In another matter, the union that represents pari-mutuel clerks has agreed to work under the terms of its current contract until Jan. 10. Local 101 of the Service Employees International Union has about 60 members.