The West Virginia Racing Commission Aug. 20 approved an animal cruelty policy that will rely heavily on existing practices and state law.

The WVRC, as well as stewards and judges at racetracks, by law can take action against permit-holders found to have engaged in cruelty, mistreatment, neglect, abuse, or abandonment of Thoroughbreds and greyhounds, both of which race in the state. They also can refer cases to law enforcement officials if deemed necessary.

"I'm struggling to understand exactly the nature of any additional adjudicating responsibility with implementation of a formal cruelty policy," commissioner Greg McDermott said.

Still, racing commissioners said they believe there is value in having a policy on the books. The policy was adopted unanimously.

"The law does give us (power), but this matter does need attention," commissioner Bill Phillips said. "I think adopting the policy will be advantageous for the commission."

Commissioners did say they would exercise caution in referring cases for potential criminal prosecution. Sam Burdette, president of the West Virginia Greyhound Breeders and Owners Association, said there is a fine line behind abuse and discipline required for training racing dogs.

"I've been in the business 24 years," Burdette said. "There have been times I've to discipline dogs but wondered at what point I would be invoking animal cruelty rather than discipline. A clear understanding of animal cruelty is important."

Kelli Talbott, senior deputy attorney general for the WVRC, advised the panel not to include a definition of animal cruelty in the policy because animal cruelty isn't defined in state law. She said any such definition should be pursued via the state legislature.

Talbott said it's up to prosecutors to make the determination. "Reasonable people can define what animal cruelty is," she said.

Christine Dorchak, president and general counsel for the welfare group GREY2K USA, said animal cruelty policies are "clear and consistent with mainstream values." She noted that referral of potential abuse cases may not result in prosecution because of due process.

Though the policy covers Thoroughbred racing, industry representatives had no comment at the racing commission meeting.

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