Horsemen's rep cries foul play

January 08, 1995|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

Has the press been taken for a ride about the closing of Charles Town racetrack in West Virginia?

Absolutely, if you listen to Randy Funkhouser, president of the Charles Town division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, who says that the shutdown of the half-mile track has been a ruse to get rid of him and his organization as independent horsemen's representatives.

Funkhouser says Charles Town management wants an in-house horsemen's organization to rubber-stamp plans to whittle live racing to a minimum, endorse the plant mostly as a simulcast center, and have the horsemen feel so glad just to be running their horses that "they will run for peanuts for purses."

The only way to do that, Funkhouser said, was to put the horsemen in a situation where they are desperate to reopen the plant.

In addition, Funkhouser says management wants the horsemen's group to front for them at the state capital to sanction a legislative package that will help get the track reopened under new desirable terms.

The day after the HBPA was told to vacate its offices at the track, Funkhouser said, a new horsemen's organization called the Charles Town Horsemen's Association moved into the space. Some of the new officers, he says, are horsemen who have cozy relationships with management and could not get elected to the HBPA board.

Under his leadership, Funkhouser said, the horsemen's organization bargained tough at times to ensure getting its fair share of the track's pari-mutuel business.

But that's not how Bob Rawlings, vice president of the new organization, views the situation. The new horsemen's group was formed, he said, because Funkhouser had lost his effectiveness to negotiate not only with management but also with the state racing commission.

"If the track is ever going to get reopened," Rawlings said, "it's got to be with horsemen that the track can get along with."

Rawlings said that track president Keith Wagner told the group late Friday afternoon that Charles Town will apply for 1995 dates and open on March 1, if the new horsemen's organization can establish its credibility with the state racing commission within the next week to 10 days. Under state law, the authorized representative for horsemen at Charles Town is the group that is composed of the majority of owners and trainers.

Within a week, Rawlings said, his organization has grown from 10 to 300 members.

"We're having a meeting [Monday] at 11 a.m. in the clubhouse to let horsemen know where we stand. Management has given us this ultimatum," he said. "Either we become the group representing horsemen and the track will reopen March 1, or we don't and the track will stay shut for good."

Funkhouser says that sounds like coercion to him.

"The racing commission is going to sanction a group that has been in existence for a week when the HBPA has represented horsemen there with integrity and honesty for 30 years?," he said. "We're an affiliate of a national organization that has a charter and bylaws. It seems to me that if they did, then the commission would be on shaky legal ground."

Funkhouser vows to stay on and fight, even though almost half of his board resigned late last week.

"We have signature cards out and I still feel we have 2,500 members," he said. "They are not only from West Virginia, but also are owners and trainers who have raced here from surrounding states. The burden of proof [for legitimacy] is on this new group."

But Rawlings said the message is clear. Charles Town's only chance to reopen is with a horsemen's organization that operates under new leadership.

Sign of the times

At the board meeting of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association last week, the group's legislative committee was asked to report on lobbying efforts for the coming session of the General Assembly or, specifically, plans on how to combat the increased presence of casino gambling advocates.

Counsel Alan Foreman said the MTHA has had trouble with one primary function -- finding a lobbyist.

It seems that the casino interests are spending money like water in Annapolis and have even snapped up the MTHA's longtime legislative aide, George Mannas.

Foreman said the group then decided to hire Jim Doyle. But no luck this time, either. Doyle, too, has been hired by casino gambling interests.

But here's the good news, Foreman said: The MTHA has hired a highly competent lobbyist named D. Robert Enten.

Among his credentials? He's already been approached to represent the casinos. But Enten had to turn them down. He's also a lobbyist for the Maryland Bankers' Association and that presents a conflict of interest. But, Foreman added, he's free to represent the horsemen.

Marylanders in Louisiana


Bill Mooney, publicist for Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, said that Maryland trainers Dick Small and Paul Seefeldt have been winning at the track.

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