More and more smaller racetracks are trying to stay in business by moving away from live racing and establishing themselves as simulcast centers and betting malls for other types of gambling.
It has happened at Delaware Park, which operates live racing five days a week, but is open seven days for simulcasting. Now it's happening at Charles Town Races in Charles Town, W.Va., where management wants to install video lottery games, which are similar to slot machines.
These kind of changes have occurred at a brisker pace than many people thought imaginable, mostly because of the chronic shortage of horseflesh.
Larger tracks are not immune. Laurel started to add weekday simulcasts this summer when there weren't enough horses to fill a 10-race card.
Don Hudson, who has been general manager at Charles Town for about a dozen years, said the dwindling supply of horses is the worst he has ever seen.
"We have room for 1,600 horses, but have usually carried 1,400 horses," he said. "I'd say our population has now dropped below 1,000, probably in the 900 range."
To keep Charles Town afloat, Hudson wants to bring in about 300 video lottery machines, which offer card games such as poker, keno and 21.
At Louisiana Downs, the introduction of video poker and simul casting from other area tracks has boosted attendance as much as 21 percent, the track said. Louisiana Downs has more than 500 video poker machines in operation from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week.
"Mountaineer Park [in Wheeling, W.Va.] already has video lottery machines, and they take whole card simulcasts from California and Illinois [racetracks] in addition to their live racing," Hudson said. "And live racing ranks third on their agenda."
Hudson said negotiations with Charles Town horsemen to gain contractual approval of the video gambling units are going to be difficult "because they [the horsemen] think betting on the video lottery machines will negatively impact betting on the live races. I can understand their point. But the trade-off is that the machines should bring in new fans and boost the entire operation."
Hudson said Charles Town does not simulcast whole cards from California, Illinois and New York tracks because costs are prohibitive.
The real headache for Charles Town will occur if Maryland opens projected off-track betting parlors in Cumberland, Hagerstown and Frederick.
"About a third of our business comes from Maryland, and most of those fans come from those three areas," he said. Hudson said he has written to Laurel's chief operating officer, Joe De Francis, with hopes that Charles Town eventually can become part of a Maryland-West Virginia circuit.
"Maryland tracks only run five days a week," Hudson said. "Maybe we can fill in on their two dark days [at the OTB centers]. Or maybe we can take Maryland races in the afternoons and then they take our races at night. I don't think there is any question that Maryland OTB will affect us negatively. But we can't change what's happening in Maryland. The only thing we can do is try to operate a full-scale entertainment center and
make it as attractive and friendly as we can."
Calling all owners
The Keeneland Yearling Sales were down 19 percent from last year's poor showing, and the three Marylanders offering six Maryland-breds were among the victims, according to sales results published in the Daily Racing Form.
Ross Valley Farm, which bought the mare Solariat for $800,000 in foal to Nijinsky II a couple of years ago, sold the resulting foal at Keeneland for $125,000. Ross Valley also sold a Pleasant Colony filly for $75,000. Both figures were below the sale average of $204,275. The farm bought back its other Nijinsky II filly when the horse did not reach its reserve bid.
Mrs. Richard du Pont bought back her Deputy Minister colt for $95,000, but sold a Private Account yearling for $70,000.
David Hayden, a local advertising executive who became a success story when his homebred filly Safely Kept became a national champion, offered, but is keeping, Safely Kept's half-brother sired by Private Account. The colt was knocked down by the auctioneer for $110,000.
"The trouble is that there aren't any people that want to own racehorses," Hayden said. "A number of bloodstock agents told me they were attending the sales only because they thought they should be there. But they weren't representing any clients."
Hayden said that Safely Kept, who was retired last year, failed to get in foal to champion sire Mr. Prospector this spring, but likely will return to the same stallion next year.
Gretchen Mobberley has defied her doctors and is back to riding.
The Glenelg horsewoman was so severely kicked in the stomach by a horse six weeks ago that she was flown by helicopter from Laurel to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center and was admitted to the intensive care unit in critical condition.
Doctors expected her to be hospitalized four to six weeks. But she was released after spending just 2 1/2 weeks at the hospital. Mobberley is now riding her lead pony at Laurel while she supervises the training of her 12-horse string.