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Doyle pitches track expansion proposals

June 03, 2005|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - In 1958, high school student John Doyle obtained a job with the newly opened Shenandoah Downs, working as a doorman and usher for the horse racetrack's Starlight Terrace.

Two years later, he got another job, this time parking cars for guests at Charles Town Races, a track that opened years earlier and across the street from the now-dilapidated Shenandoah Downs.

Both jobs put Doyle, now a member of the House of Delegates from Jefferson County, through college and led to the creation of friendships with people in the horse racing industry, Doyle told the Jefferson County Commission Thursday afternoon.

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Those friendships and a concern for the safety of horses and jockeys have caused Doyle to become a vocal advocate for expanding Charles Town Races & Slots' horse track from six to seven furlongs in length.

A furlong is 220 yards, or one-eighth of a mile.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Doyle said nothing behind the scenes is motivating his advocacy of a seven-furlong track, which would have wider turns.

Wider turns would put less pressure on horses' ankles and cause fewer horses to suffer injuries that require them to be euthanized, Doyle said.

Harold Shotwell, who owns racehorses, said the current track is causing an inordinate number of horses to "break down." Two jockeys were taken to a hospital when two horses broke down Wednesday night, he told the county commissioners.

County Commissioner Greg Corliss said he supports Doyle's efforts to widen the track's turns.

"I hope this horse you're riding wins," he said.

A week ago, Doyle met with John Finamore, senior vice president-regional operations for the track, for about an hour and a half, pitching six proposals on how the track could be extended from six to seven furlongs without forcing horsemen to lose their livelihoods.

Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns the track, has said it will extend the track, but that the construction means racing would be halted for at least six months, and likely nine months to a year.

Doyle outlined his six proposals to the county commissioners.

They are:

· Distribute revenue from slot machines and simulcast races to horse owners, jockeys and others whose incomes rely on the track. During construction, allow horses to be trained at the old Shenandoah Downs facility.

· Once construction on the lengthened track is finished, increase purses to make up for money lost during the down time. During construction, allow horses to be trained at the old Shenandoah Downs facility.

· Extend the number of cards - for example, 12 races per card - until lost revenue is made up. During construction, allow horses to be trained at the old Shenandoah Downs facility.

· Make up dates lost during construction as soon as possible after construction is finished, and allow horses to be trained at the old Shenandoah Downs facility during construction.

· Renovate the Shenandoah Downs facility into an acceptable condition and hold races there until Charles Town's track is extended.

· Build a new seven-furlong track at Shenandoah Downs, with a small grandstand and clubhouse area for the public. Install slot machines, if desired. Use the existing track at Charles Town for other development purposes.

Doyle said that "down time" could be reduced by building the extended track after training ceases in the morning and before racing begins at night. The job is large enough that many contractors would likely be willing to work an irregular schedule, he said.

Doyle said Thursday that he has heard no feedback on his proposals from track officials.

Nobody from Charles Town Races & Slots attended the County Commission meeting and Finamore was out of his office.

Finamore has previously maintained that Penn National Gaming will not spend any money to renovate Shenandoah Downs for racing or training purposes. It would cost around $5 million to make that facility usable, which Penn National officials consider to be "throwaway money," Finamore has said.

Doyle said the cost of refurbishing Shenandoah Downs should simply be considered part of the cost of extending the track.

"I believe they have that responsibility to the people of West Virginia and to the people of Jefferson County," Doyle said.

Always a supporter of the track, Doyle said a rift was created when Penn National reneged about a year ago on a pledge to extend the track.

Finamore, however, has said Penn National is willing to spend about $15 million to extend the track, but only if the plan is approved by the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA).

About three weeks ago, HBPA members voted against Finamore's proposal, in part because racing would cease for up to a year.

Doyle said he is an optimist, and hopes track officials will work with the HBPA to negotiate an agreeable plan to extend the track.

Although the jobs at Charles Town Races & Slots probably could be replaced, other benefits might be lost forever. Horse racing has caused many farms to be preserved, rather than turned into housing developments, Doyle said.

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