Charles Town Classic fiasco: this response takes racing in the wrong direction

Star attraction: Game On Dude winning the $1.2 million Charles Town Classic in 2013. Photo: Coady Photography

This is a case where the cure is worse than the disease. Legislation is currently making its way through the statehouse in West Virginia that would expand its racing commission from three to five members. More importantly, it would mandate that new appointees be “capable and experienced in fields of knowledge relevant to racing”.  On February 6, 2018, the bill passed in the Senate with a vote of 30-0.

The legislation (aka Senate Bill 393) is likely a well-intentioned response to the recent fiasco of the racing commission’s attempt to gut the Charles Town Classic. The state’s only Graded race.

On January 23, 2018, in a decision that brought shame and ire on state’s regulators, the commission voted to cap the Classic’s purse at $300,000.

Its advertised value had been $1.2 million. The immediate backlash from the industry, and, most importantly, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, who made his displeasure public, virtually assured the issue would be revisited.


The writing was on the wall two weeks later, when the WV racing commission met to rescind its previous decision.

Evidently, enough damage had been done to prod legislative action.

The increase from three to five members is immaterial. The qualifications mandate, which might look good on paper, is problematic in real life.

The bill, if passed as is, would amount to self-regulation. Which is bad. Very bad. But, first let’s look at what the bill says.

Specifically, the bill states, “Individuals appointed to the commission shall be persons who, by reason of previous training and experience, can be classified as capable and experienced in fields of knowledge relevant to racing.”

One person, qualified as above, would be appointed as a representative for each of the following:

  • Tourism

  • Thoroughbred horse racing

  • Greyhound racing

  • Casino (with either race track management or casino experience)

  • Veterinary

Two issues are worth raising.

First: potential conflicts of interest. Nothing in the bill prohibits the appointment of a commissioner who has a financial relationship with a person or entity he or she regulates.

For example, can the veterinarian appointed to the commission work on horses racing at the track? Is the casino representative going to be an official of the track or casino?

I am familiar with the Horse Racing Integrity Act of 2017. All parties involved in its drafting of that federal legislation insisted that authority to regulate be entrusted to an independent body. The West Virginia bill takes the industry in the opposite direction.

Each state’s pari-mutuel statute across the country varies on whether to allow individuals who are “in the business” to serve as commissioners. Regardless of prohibitions against such situations, the Governor controls this issue by the appointments that are made.

The other issue is having a commission where the majority represents certain segments of the industry.

No commissioner should represent any segment of the industry. Commissioners should represent the public in the state they serve. They are regulators whose duty requires them to protect the integrity of the sport and the safety of the participants – human and equine. Every commissioner should be mindful to consider the health and prosperity of the industry at-large.

It’s only human nature, however, to view the world from the perspective of your experience. When a person is placed on a commission to represent a special interest, that’s what he or she will do.

I once had had a commissioner in Indiana, who had ties to the Standardbred industry, declare on a split vote something along the lines of – “I’m a Standardbred guy and I’m voting for the Standardbreds”. What an embarrassment. This was supposedly on impartial panel. Even the Standardbred horsemen at that meeting were embarrassed.

It’s been my experience as a horse racing regulator in Indiana for 25 years, that, all things being equal, it is best to have commissioners without ties to the industry. I’ve know a handful of “in-the-business” commissioners who have served their state well – with honor, dignity and objectivity.

But these folks are the exception, not the rule.

It is interesting to note that the commissioner who initiated the purse cut to the Charles Town Classic, Ken Lowe Jr., is certainly qualified under the Senate Bill 393 to retain his seat on the commission. He is a former racehorse owner who served as the HBPA President at Charles Town Race Track.

It’s one thing to allow conflicted or potentially biased individuals to serve on a racing commission. It’s another to mandate it.

That’s what Senate Bill 393 does.


Joe Gorajec has spent his entire adult life in the racing industry and served as the executive director of the Indiana Horse Racing Commission for 25 years (1990-2015). He is also a former chairman of the North American regulators’ trade association, the Association of Racing Commissioners International (2008). Now semi-retired, he spends his time consulting, writing and gardening at his central Indiana home.


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