01/23/2018 1:34PM

West Virginia Racing Commission declines to approve purse funds for Charles Town Classic


The West Virginia Racing Commission on Tuesday voted not to approve the $1.2 million purse of the Charles Town Classic, putting the future of the Grade 2 race in jeopardy.

The West Virginia Racing Commission is a three-person panel comprising chairman Jack Rossi and commissioners Ken Lowe and Anthony Figaretti.

The 2018 Charles Town schedule was originally up for approval at last month's commission meeting, but was deferred to January after Lowe indicated he was not comfortable putting so much of the horsemen's purse fund into a single race. He proposed limiting the Charles Town Classic purse to $300,000.

Lowe's proposal was unusual because the Charles Town Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association has given its authorization to the stakes schedule. Charles Town also is within its contractual guidelines of limiting the unrestricted stakes program to 8 percent or less of the total purse fund, according to Erich Zimny, the vice president of racing at Charles Town.

"The HBPA signed off on our stakes schedule," he said. "This is the horsemen's money, not the commission's."

At Tuesday's meeting, Lowe explained he believed spreading the bulk of the Classic purse among a number of smaller stakes would provide more benefit to the Charles Town economy and to local horsemen.

He made a motion to fund the Classic up to $300,000 with money from the horsemen's account. In addition, he said if Penn Gaming, the owner of Hollywood Casino at Charles Town and the track, contributed $400,000 to the purse, the commission would increase the horsemen's contribution to that same amount.

Lowe said he would be willing to make the race $1 million if Penn Gaming put up half the purse.

"I understand you have a good crowd that day, and the dining rooms fill up, and that after the races some of the crowd goes to the casino, which is why I have come up with a compromise," Lowe said. "I ask for Penn Gaming to be part of a partnership."

Lowe's motion was seconded by Figaretti. Lowe and Figgaretti then both voted in favor of it. Rossi did not appear to vote.

Zimny argued vigorously in defense of the Classic purse and how the race benefits Charles Town. He said betting handle at Charles Town is up 65 percent since the Classic was introduced in 2009.

"The Classic has been the driving force to push this program forward," he said. "The Charles Town Classic has become the biggest race in the state, bigger than Mountaineer's Derby. We were on Fox Sports 2 last year. The Classic is the only way we can get on there and have people from around the country watch our races."

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Zimny said the Grade 2 Classic would not be run under the limitations put in place by the commission Tuesday.

"The decision kills the biggest weekend of racing in West Virginia," Zimny said. "We will not have the race for $300,000, and the chances of Penn Gaming matching the horsemen's funds to put on the race are nonexistent. The race is done, at least for this year."

Lowe, 69, has a long and complicated history with Charles Town. A former horse owner, he was elected president of the Charles Town HBPA in 2009. In 2011, while still president, he was ejected from the track for two weeks after reportedly breaking a track rule of handing out political flyers in the stable area.

He was appointed to the commission last February by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, who was elected a month earlier.

At Tuesday's meeting, Lowe described the relationship between the commission and Penn Gaming as "a shotgun wedding, and the marriage isn’t going very well."

Following passage of Lowe's motion Tuesday, the commission appeared ready to vote on the rest of the Charles Town Stakes schedule, but Zimny said he would need to resubmit it in its entirety.

"At this point, I really don’t know what it will look like," he said.

Coming into the meeting, Zimny said he didn’t know what to expect, but that he and other members of Penn Gaming's management staff were surprised by the result.

"It's shocking to us," he said. "To stay within the terms of our contract with the horsemen we have made a number of cutbacks over the years. We did away with the Red Legend, which had a $400,000 purse. We have reduced the Classic from $1.5 million to $1.2 million. And, the Charles Town Oaks, which had a $500,000 purse, is now $300,000.

"To do away with this race is like putting a dagger into our program."