Charles Town Classic in jeopardy

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Rejecting a $1.2 million purse for a premier racing event at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, the West Virginia Racing Commission voted Tuesday to require the casino and racetrack’s owner to either lower the purse or pony up money themselves.

The decision by the three-member Racing Commission rocked the state’s thoroughbred racing industry by upending a marketing strategy used by the Charles Town racetrack to draw big-name horses and trainers and nationwide media coverage to the one-day Charles Town Classic every spring for the past nine years.

Racing Commissioner Ken Lowe Jr., a Shepherdstown, West Virginia, real estate agent and a longtime racing official in the state, spearheaded the change in purse winnings as a way to financially bolster the thoroughbred horse racing and breeding industry in Jefferson County and West Virginia.

“I can’t, in good conscience, justify spending that much for one race,” said Lowe, a former president of the Charles Town Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association. “There’s no local horses involved (in the Charles Town Classic). To my knowledge, there’s no local jockeys involved.”

Lowe said the purse money used for such a large winners’ share for a single race would be much better used to fund several races with smaller purses. Those races wouldn’t support big-name horses from outside the state, he said, but they would provide a critical financial boost to the local horse racing industry in rural Jefferson County.

“It’s giving money away to (affluent horse-racing owners from other states) when Charles Town (horsemen are) struggling,” Lowe said of the large purse established for the Charles Town Classic. “I would think there would be more benefit to having ten $100,000 races, or even four $250,000 races.”

On Tuesday, the Racing Commission approved a full race schedule and purse amounts for several upcoming races at the Charles Town racetrack this year, except for the $1.2 million purse proposed for the Charles Town Classic.

Instead, the commission set the purse at $300,000. However, Lowe said the commission also allowed Hollywood’s owner, Penn National in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, to increase that purse further with its own funds, an amount that could be matched by the pool of purse money given to local horse-racing owners.

Lowe pointed out that members of the Charles Town Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association are given a set amount of purse money to use over the racetrack’s season. The $1.2 million purse for the Charles Town Class draws from that limit money, he said.

This year’s Charles Town Classic is scheduled for April 21.

Erich Zimny, vice president of racing at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, called the Racing Commission’s purse change “virtually unprecedented,” “completely misguided” and harmful to the horse-racing industry in West Virginia.

The race’s lower purse won’t attract top horses and jockeys that creates a marque event, and in turn race bettors, Zimny said.

Zimny, who initially presented the $1.2 million purse to the commission for approval in November, said the nine-year-old Charles Town Classic was started has drawn valuable attention to the Charles Town track and to West Virginia.

“That’s the day more eyes are on West Virginia racing. It’s the biggest race West Virginia has,” he said. “We’ve attracted some of the best horse in the world here (through the race), and some of the best jockeys in the world.”

However, Lowe disagreed, saying his research shows that the Charles Town Classic is unnecessarily extravagant. The country’s most premier racing events, including the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, the Santa Anita Handicap in California, and the Wood Memorial in New York all have lower purses than the Charles Town Classic, he said.

And their pursues are dropping, not increasing, he added.

Lowe also disputed that the Charles Town Classic has become a big event drawing premier horses, jockeys and owners.

“The Charles Town Classic is for older horses who are basically finishing their careers,” he said. “It doesn’t attract top names.”

Lowe said the current process of deciding how horse racing purses are divided up at the Charles Town racetrack needs to change. More voice needs to be given to horse owners racing on the track, he said.

“quotations”>”We need to get everybody back at the table to talk about it,” Lowe said. “We need to work together.

“I think I’m saying the right thing at the right time.”

Lowe said the commission’s decision may be controversial and a break with the past, but it’s also necessary for the survival of Jefferson County’s horse racing industry and its rural heritage.

“We need to keep this track. We’re trying to keep it going,” he said of the horse racing industry that supports track at Charles Town Races and the surrounding area’s local farm economy.

“We want to keep this an agricultural-based county,” he added. “You get rid of the race track you won’t need a county fair. To me, that’s serious stuff. I’ve lived here my entire life.”