When Jim Justice made his successful run for governor of West Virginia in 2016, he often remarked how a major horse race could help bring tourism to the state. Just over a year later, however, two of Justice's appointees to the three-member state racing commission are driving a stake into the heart of West Virginia's biggest horse race: the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic.
“I know tourism, and I've succeeded in creating new tourism jobs when many people thought I was crazy,” Justice said at one campaign stop in August 2016. The owner of the state's famed Greenbrier resort added, “I'll take tourism in this state to a level we've never seen before. We need to think big. What I did to increase tourism jobs at the Greenbrier, I'll do all over West Virginia.”
Included in that vision, Justice said numerous times, is a big horse race designed to spotlight the state's Thoroughbred industry and bring tourists into the state.
What Justice may not have realized when he appointed Kenneth F. Lowe Jr. and Anthony Figaretti to the West Virginia Racing Commission is that Lowe was a “small” thinker when it comes to racing.
Lowe is a former horse owner who served as president of the West Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. In 2011, he was ejected from from Charles Town by management for allegedly violating track policy by distributing political leaflets in the stable area. On Tuesday, while in his first full year as racing commissioner, Lowe convinced fellow Justice appointee Figaretti to join him in rejecting the 2018 Charles Town stakes schedule, which included the $1.2 million Charles Town Classic on April 22.
Lowe said he wants the race to be worth $300,000, with the remainder of the purse money distributed in smaller stakes.
This unprecedented micromanagement by what appears to be a vengeful racing commissioner came despite a purse agreement between Charles Town and the West Virginia HBPA, according to published reports. (For details on the meeting, click here.)
Erich Zimny, vice president of racing operations for the Penn National Gaming-owned racetrack, called the move by Lowe and Figaretti “misguided” and “ridiculous.”
Zimny said the Charles Town Classic has given the track a national profile and contributed toward 65 percent gains in handle per race year-round since the Classic's first running in 2009. “The facts are out there,” Zimny said. “We've had three record years in a row. The Classic has contributed huge incremental revenue to the purse fund for local horsemen. It draws people to the area, and Gov. Justice said he wants horse racing to be a tourist-centric sport.”
Ungraded for its first two runnings, the Classic was made Grade 3 in 2011, when it attracted a strong field, led by that year's three older male division Eclipse Award finalists: Acclamation, Game On Dude and Tizway. The strength of that field elevated the Classic to Grade 2 in 2012, and it's held that grade ever since.
A $300,000 purse will not attract the same quality field, said Zimny, adding, “We're not going to run the race for $300,000.”
Unless the racing commission reconsiders or Gov. Justice finds someone, like himself, who thinks big and can replace Lowe on the racing commission, it's almost certain the Charles Town Classic won't be run in 2018.
UPDATE: Late Tuesday, the Charleston Gazette-Mail said Justice issued the following statement: “I don't dictate what my appointees do, but I am in support of the one big race, the Charles Town Classic. I have asked my staff to look into ways to have this decision reversed.”
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