National HBPA Asks Intentions of Alabama Horsemen

Behind-the-scenes efforts to return Thoroughbred racing to Alabama met with a hint of allegations Jan. 28 that the Alabama Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association may not have racing's best interests at heart.

During the National HBPA executive committee meeting in Phoenix, Ariz., Alabama HBPA president Skip Drinkard, and the group's counsel, Mike Wallace, said a budget crunch and Indian casinos have made the time ripe to pursue legislation for racetrack gaming. The bill would require Birmingham Race Course to offer live horse racing should it get video gaming machines.

Birmingham, which now offers live Greyhound racing and full-card simulcasting of horse and dog races, closed for Thoroughbred racing in the 1990s. When an anti-trust suit tied to simulcasting was dismissed, the track paid the Alabama HBPA a $1-million settlement, Wallace said.

Under the terms of a current contract, Birmingham pays the Alabama HBPA $10,000 a month for the right to simulcast horse races. Wallace also said there is money in an escrow fund. (In the late 1990s, that purse money was mentioned as a possible way to fund the Claiming Crown and bring live racing back to Birmingham.)

The Alabama HBPA currently funds five $35,000 Alabama-bred stakes held at other tracks in the country. A few years ago, it paid the National HBPA $183,000.

The organization has about 300 members, down from 600, and its board meets once a year. But its deal with Birmingham, and the fact an election hasn't been held since 1994, led some members of the National HBPA to question Drinkard and Wallace.

"In the last three months, I've gotten about 50 calls from people in Alabama ... who say there are no elections, no accountability, and that they don't know where the money is going," said Dick Watson, president of the Charles Town HBPA. "I want you to invite me down there so I can look at the books."

"Any member of our organization is entitled to see the books," Wallace said.

Florida HBPA president Linda Mills asked why the Alabama HBPA doesn't remove the signals to force a return of live racing. Drinkard said such action would put the organization "right back to square one."

Wallace said the legislative session in Alabama begins March 4. He said three Indian casinos that are "just mobile homes tied together, but they took in $100 million," have caught legislator's attention because they generate no revenue for the state. Racetrack-based gaming would, however.

"We're really excited about what's going on," Wallace said.