Charles Town: Stakes slate put on hold by WV Commission
by Frank Vespe
Following a contentious discussion, the West Virginia Racing Commission this morning voted to table Charles Town’s proposed 2018 stakes schedule, leaving the track’s biggest event, the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic, in limbo, at least for now.
As required by state law, the track had requested approval for the six open stakes on its calendar; in addition to the Classic, those include the Grade 3 Charles Town Oaks, as well as the Sugar Maple, Robert Hilton Memorial, Russell Road, and Pink Ribbon Stakes. The remainder of the track’s stakes program is filled out by state-bred events and the West Virginia Breeders Classics.
But it was the Classic — with its $1.25 million purse — that dominated the discussion.
“I have a problem with $1.2 million for the Charles Town Classic,” commissioner Ken Lowe said. “I think the money could be better spent. I cannot justify giving $1.2 million to a horse who, 99.99 percent of the time, is going to be from out of town. I don’t see the benefit to the community.”
Lowe argued that the money could be better spent, for example, by running 10 $100,000 races or four events at $250,000 each. Those, he suggested, would have more participation from local horsemen and be better for the state’s racing industry, and community of Charles Town more broadly.
Charles Town officials countered that the sizable purse was necessary to attract the high-end horses that have enabled the race to attain its national prominence — and that that prominence had benefited the track and the racing industry as a whole. The Classic is one of just 12 races in the mid-Atlantic that have attained Grade 1 or Grade 2 status and the only one of those for older horses on the main track.
Calling it “the cornerstone of our racing program here,” racing secretary Charlie McIntosh said that the track had had to overcome three major hurdles in attracting horses: that it races at night, is hard to get to, and has a bullring, six-furlong track.
It has taken steps to resolve the first two of those — the Charles Town Classic card takes place during the day, for example, and the track has worked with the Tex Sutton Company to ease air travel to the area — but the bullring track isn’t going anywhere. That leaves the track to try to make up ground on its rivals by offering a better purse.
“For a small track like us, that’s the one advantage we have,” said Erich Zimny, the track’s vice president of racing operations.
Zimny said that the Classic competes with Oaklawn Park’s Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap for horses. That race now sports a $750,000 purse, and with that track’s higher national profile, has other advantages that Charles Town must counter.
“We strongly disagree that (the high purse of the Classic) isn’t necessary to draw the type of horses we want to draw,” Zimny told the commissioners.
What’s more, he said that the Classic had been the linchpin of growth that has seen the track set handle-per-race marks three straight years, with a fourth all but assured in 2017. Per-race handle is up by 65 percent since the inception of the race, Zimny said. The national attention focused on the Classic has spun off to more eyeballs on the rest of the track’s product.
“We’ve used our events earlier in the year (like the Classic) to promote the local folks, as well,” Zimny said.
In the end, Lowe said that he would be willing to live with a $300,000 purse for the Classic.
Not enough, said the racetrack.
“If that’s what we’re stuck with, we’ll probably kill the race,” responded McIntosh.
That left Commission chairman Jack Rossi vainly searching for a compromise that proved elusive. Stakes purses amount to eight percent of the previous year’s purses each year. Though the development of that structure typically is a negotiation between the track and its horsemen, the Commission has broad legal authority to intervene.
“What we probably need to do is perhaps we delve more into the information,” Rossi said. If it takes a couple of additional weeks to reach “some sort of compromise,” that would be a good outcome.
And that’s what the Commission decided to do.