Brought back to the negotiating table by legislative pressure, management of the Charles Town Turf Club and representatives of horsemen today reached agreement on a new contract.
The horsemen, with only three dissenting votes, then voted to lift the boycott that had resulted in small fields for programs Friday night and tonight and threatened to close the thoroughbred track for the next program Tuesday night.
In return for their agreeing to use straw bedding in stalls, the horsemen were granted a number of concessions in what basically amounts to keeping the status quo of a contract that expired two years ago. Both the horsemen and management also are trying to get economic relief from the legislature.
Fendall Clagett, who led negotiations for the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Asssociation, said he expects a contract to be signed by Feb. 24. The negotiations today were witnessed by Dr. James B. Hutzler, a racing commissioner.
Clagett and Alvin Trenk, vice chairman of the Kenton Corp., which owns the Shenandoah Corp., operator of the track, are scheduled to testify before a statehouse finance committee Tuesday in Charleston on a bill that would permit a Jefferson County referendum on Sunday racing here.
Trenk has described Sunday racing as the savior of the track, the city's largest industry. He had announced the permanent closing of the track last month before he and Gov. Jay Rockefeller agreed to a plan to introduce the Sunday-racing referndum bill.
The horsemen also plan to ask the legislature for an extra 1 percent of the weeknight parimutuel takeout for purses, or about $700,000. If approved, this would offset the increased cost of straw over sawdust and wood-chip bedding. Trainers estimate their bedding costs will triple.
The boycotting horsemen had been adamant on refusing to enter horses until a contract was signed. But, following a late night meeting Friday, and two hours of negotiations this morning, Clagett told his members:
"In essence, the contract is all agreed upon and will be confirmed to you by representatives of management and the commission... If we go down there (to Charleston) with a black eye of no agreement to assure racing, then our friends there assured me we have no chance of getting any consideration whatsoever."
The straw bedding will allow the track to sell manure to Pennsylvania mushroom farmers. After an initial period in which straw will be used exclusively, in order to get the best price, other beddings may be allowed to be used in concert. The horsemen will share in the profits of manure sales and management will attempt to buy the straw in bulk to reduce horsemen's costs.
While management has insisted straw-vs.-sawdust bedding was the main issue, horsemen were worried that management wanted to be able to make some previously mutual decisions unilaterally. The most important of these was the HPBA has the right to approve all stakes program and review conditions books.
Faced with more racing dates in Maryland, the average handle here has dropped from $410,000 to $326,000 in three years. Maryland does not race on Sundays and horsemen here were afraid the track would schedule major stakes races to entice fans here on Sundays and thereby reduce purses for local horsemen. An HBPA officer estimates 90 percent of horsemen here operate at a loss.