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Horsemen favor bigger track expansion

July 14, 2004|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

A spokesman for a new horse-racing organization at Charles Town Races & Slots says his group has conducted a survey among horsemen that shows they want a bigger expansion of the oval than the one being planned by owners.

The survey conducted by The Thoroughbred Club claims horsemen favor expanding the track from six to seven furlongs. A furlong is one-eighth of a mile.

The track's owner, Penn National Gaming, is planning modifications to the track to allow for longer races, but not in a way that widens the turns.

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Charles Town will be regarded as having low-quality racing if it remains at six furlongs, and it is important for Charles Town to consider a bigger track expansion to stay competitive, according to a press release from The Thoroughbred Club.

Competitiveness is especially important considering surrounding states have legalized slot machines and others are debating the issue, the press release said.

"We're going to be the little guy and we don't have to be," said Harold Shotwell, chairman of The Thoroughbred Club.

The release said turns at the track are sharp and harmful to local horses.

A spokesman for the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the organization that has a contract with track owners to represent horsemen at the oval, downplayed the survey.

The report is "not a true survey" because it avoids some of the more difficult issues, such as asking horsemen how long they would be willing to have the track shut down to expand it, said Wayne Harrison, acting president of the HBPA.

To allow for races up to 71/2 furlongs, track owners are planning to lengthen "shoots," which are areas where starting gates are set up along the track, said former track President Jim Buchanan, now senior vice president of government and public affairs for Penn National Gaming.

The HBPA favored lengthening the shoots rather than widening the turns because members of the horsemen's group were concerned about how long the track would have to be shut down to widen the turns, Buchanan said.

Buchanan referred questions about the survey to the HBPA. Buchanan said if there are "splinter groups" forming in regard to horsemen's issues, that is something the HBPA should deal with.

"Otherwise, you would have a million different suggestions," Buchanan said.

Shotwell said The Thoroughbred Club was formed two months ago and that he has had horses at Charles Town since 1999.

About 2,750 HBPA members and 150 members of the West Virginia Thoroughbred Breeders Association were asked to respond to the survey, Shotwell said in the news release.

More than 800 people responded to the survey and 80 percent of those responding said they wanted the circumference of the track expanded from six to seven furlongs, the release said.

Seventy-five percent of the people wanting a seven-furlong track also want a turf track in addition to the current dirt track, the press release said.

Discussions about how to expand the track have been under way since last year.

Harrison said the plan that track owners and the HBPA have agreed to is a good one because an earlier proposal called for purse money - winnings divided among horsemen - to be used to help pay for the improvements.

Now track owners have agreed to pay the total cost of the project, which is estimated at $7 million, Harrison said. The work includes installing new lighting at the track, a new racing surface, new drainage system, banking the turns, building a 3/8-mile training track on property the track owns between the oval and U.S. 340, and building four new barns, Harrison and Buchanan said.

Harrison said he does not understand why the survey was conducted because horsemen, track owners and the West Virginia Racing Commission have approved the expansion the track is about to begin.

"There's no stopping it now. This survey is just causing headaches," Harrison said.

Fill material for the new surface is being stockpiled at the track and the oval will be closed to live racing for most of next month to allow for the improvements, Buchanan said.

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