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State racing industry under attack, must stand united, Racing Commissioner warns

West Virginia Racing Commissioner Ken Lowe called Tuesday for all sides of the greyhound and thoroughbred racing industries to unite against legislative and humane-group efforts to decouple racing at the state’s racetrack casinos.

“The racing industry is constantly under attack. We’re under attack, folks; we’re low-hanging fruit,” he said during Tuesday’s commission meeting. “We need to be together. We need to be united.”

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In 2017, the Legislature passed a bill to eliminate the $15 million annual subsidy for greyhound racing purses, and to remove a requirement in state law that racetrack casinos in Nitro and Wheeling provide greyhound racing, to be allowed to operate video lottery and table games.

Gov. Jim Justice vetoed the bill, but Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, has said he plans to revive the legislation during the 2020 regular session, contending that the $15 million could be better spent on other much-needed state projects and programs.

Grey2K USA, a powerful national anti-greyhound racing group, has said it will focus its attention and resources on West Virginia in 2020, having successfully pushed last year for passage of a statewide referendum to end greyhound racing in Florida.

Lowe, however, said he believes a decoupling bill can’t override state laws legalizing racetrack video lottery and table games at the racetrack casinos — and the county referenda approving those forms of gaming — that require greyhound or thoroughbred racing at those tracks as a condition to operate the casinos.

“No racing — no slots. That’s the way it’s written,” he said. “We can’t let that change. I will not let that change.”

Lowe pointed out that legislation legalizing racetrack video lottery and table games at the four state racetrack casinos spells out the importance of continuing racing at those facilities.

He read into the record that legislation legalizing racetrack video lottery states: “The Legislature finds and declares that the existing pari-mutuel racing facilities in West Virginia provide a valuable tourism resource for this state and provide significant economic benefits to the citizens of this state through the provision of jobs and the generation of state revenues; that this valuable tourism resource is threatened because of a general decline in the racing industry and because of increasing competition from racing facilities and lottery products offered by neighboring states; and that the survival of West Virginia’s pari-mutuel racing industry is in jeopardy unless modern lottery games are authorized at the racetracks.

“All of us must work in concert to keep this industry going, to protect thousands of jobs.”

Lowe, who lives in Shepherdstown, said he had stuck his neck out to support video lottery and table games referenda in Jefferson County, where both measures were initially defeated by voters before winning passage.

“Now to think that people would try to change that is an insult to me — an insult to a lot of people,” he said.

Lowe also said the industry needs to do a better job of policing itself, to avoid giving critics fodder on issues such as racing injuries or drugging of animals.

“We need to single out the guilty parties, and punish them or ban them from the industry,” he said.

To that end, Lowe said, the Racing Commission needs to be adequately funded and staffed, commenting, “I know we’re understaffed. We need more money for this commission.”

Also Tuesday during the Racing Commission meeting:

  • Commissioners approved a reduction in live racing days at Mountaineer Racetrack for 2020 from the 210 days required by law to 130 days, noting that purse funds at the thoroughbred track are inadequate to cover the legislatively mandated schedule.

Commission Chairman Joe Rossi said the Legislature has refused to remove the requirement from law, forcing the tracks to annually seek exceptions from the commission.

  • Commission Executive Director Joe Moore said the agency is on track to launch its Medical Review Board to investigate fatal racing injuries and to conduct necropsies in those events, beginning in January.

  • Lowe took offense to published reports indicating that he had little experience in the racing industry before being appointed to the commission in 2017.

He said he worked at Charles Town and the former Shenandoah Downs racetracks while in high school and college, and after graduation, with duties ranging from being a messenger for pari-mutuel cashiers to proofing racing programs and serving as the official timer for races. Lowe said he owns thoroughbreds that race in Maryland.

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