04/19/2017 2:46PM

Racing commission votes to shorten Mountaineer meet by 30 days

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The West Virginia Racing Commission at a specially called Monday meeting voted 2-0 in favor of Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack, and Resort shortening its meet, which began last Saturday, from 160 days to 130 days and restoring purses to 2016 levels.

The changes were made at the request of the West Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and have not been well received by Mountaineer management.

Mountaineer had average purses of about $95,000 a day last year. This year's first condition book reduced purses by approximately 10 percent to $86,000, and the second condition book reduces purses another 10 percent to about $77,000.

The majority of the purse fund comes from the approximately 6.75 percent of revenue it receives from the casino's 1,525 video lottery terminals. The fund also receives a percentage of takeout on the track's live, import, and export handle.

According to Rosemary Williams, the track's director of racing, the purse reductions are the result of a decline in business in the casino. Mountaineer has faced increased competition since the 2014 opening of Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley, which is 46 miles away, and the introduction of a smoking ban in 2015.

"I told the HBPA that if we did the two reductions, we would have the purses to race 160 days," Williams said.

In 2015, Mountaineer reduced a scheduled 210-day season to 160 days midway through its season. The track raced 160 days last year.

By mandate, Mountaineer has to apply for 210 racing days each year, as it did last October. It then requested a reduction to 160 days in November, which the commission granted.

The commission has given Mountaineer until May 2 to cut back its schedule from five days a week to four and increase purses.

The commission is composed of Jack Rossi, its chairman, and commissioners Kenneth Lowe Jr. and Anthony Figaretti, both of whom were appointed in February by newly elected Gov. Jim Justice. Lowe and Figaretti voted in favor of the Mountaineer changes, and Rossi abstained.

Jami Poole, the president of the Mountaineer HBPA, said the reduction in dates is necessary to maintain field size.

"Because of the purse cuts, our field size is going to be so small that our handle is going to keep dropping and we'll have to cut purses again," Poole said. "I believe with the higher purses, our field size will get bigger, and people will bet more money on our races. I believe that will offset the loss of handle from the fewer races we will run."

Poole said the majority of horsemen support the plan. He said the purse pool for the meet is about $11.7 million.

"We have to save the owners to keep the game going," Poole said. "Presque Isle, Thistledown, Mahoning Valley, Belterra race about 90 to 100 days a year, and their bottom purses are all higher than we have."

According to Williams, the loss of 30 race days would cost Mountaineer about $400,000 in revenue. She said the reduction to a four-day week would also affect the track's employees, some of whom could lose their full-time status and health-care benefits.

"There is a process to reduce dates, and Monday's meeting did not follow that process," Williams said. "I did not expect this outcome. We are considering all of our options in how we will respond to the commission's directive."

Williams said she does not believe increasing purses will generate enough additional handle to make up for the loss of race days.

"I'm not sure they realize it, but if we restore purses to last year's level, we won't have enough money to race 130 days," she said.

Williams said the track's signature event, the West Virginia Derby, would maintain its purse of $750,000, but the day's other stakes might have to take larger cuts than previously anticipated.