Charles Town to see if its future is good bet Video lottery at track is up to voters today

November 05, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- For the second time in two years, residents of Jefferson County hold in their hands the fate of quaint Charles Town racetrack.

County voters will decide today whether to allow video-lottery machines at Charles Town Races, the horse track near the Maryland line, 25 miles west of Frederick.

If voters approve the machines, Penn National Gaming Inc. pledges to exercise its option to buy the track, renovate it and reopen in the spring as a horse racing and video-lottery center. If voters reject the machines, Penn National vows to walk away, and Charles Town management says the financially troubled track, the county's main attraction for 63 years, will close for good.

Racing interests in Maryland are paying close attention.

Already in Delaware, the success of slot machines has upgraded that state's racing, attracting horses who might otherwise race in Maryland and gamblers who might otherwise bet at Maryland tracks. And in Pennsylvania, bills have been introduced to allow slot machines at that state's tracks.

Joe De Francis, president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, said he sees today's referendum in Jefferson County as one more threat to horse racing in Maryland.

"Maryland competes with Charles Town for horses at the lower levels," De Francis said. "And we compete directly with Charles Town for fans. You put slots in there, and it's going to have a devastating impact on the Cracked Claw."

Situated in Urbana, just south of Frederick, the Cracked Claw is Maryland's most successful off-track betting center.

The proximity to Maryland and Gov. Parris N. Glendening's opposition to slot machines are not lost on Jefferson County supporters of video lottery.

"Maryland's governor has said no slot machines for two or three years," said Richard Watson, secretary-treasurer of the Charles BTC Town Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "That's going to give Charles Town a heck of a leg up."

Once before, in 1994, voters in this tranquil county of fewer than 40,000 residents wrestled with a referendum on video-lottery machines, which are similar to slot machines except they pay off in credit instead of cash. They rejected video lottery, 4,412 to 3,874.

Much of that opposition was directed at D. Keith Wagner, one of the track's 11 owners and then its president. He had clashed repeatedly with residents -- as well as horsemen -- over various issues, and many believed his threat to close Charles Town if the referendum failed was hollow.

They were right. Charles Town reopened three months later, but continued to lose money as it had for years.

What's different today is that Wagner resigned as president in August, and lifelong Jefferson County resident Roger R. Ramey replaced him. Ramey, 62, has sold appliances in downtown Charles Town for 40 years. He gave up his post on the West Virginia Racing Commission to help wage Penn National Gaming's aggressive, well-orchestrated campaign for video lottery.

"I don't think too many people believe the track is crying wolf this time," Ramey said. "We here at the track know for a fact that if this referendum fails, the track closes. The owners will get out of the property what they can."

Peter M. Carlino, chairman and CEO of Penn National Gaming, which owns Penn National Race Course in Grantville, Pa., said that if today's referendum passes, his corporation will buy Charles Town Races for $16.5 million, spend another $16 million renovating it and then reopen about April 1 with live horse racing and 400 video-lottery machines. And his corporation will promptly apply for 600 more, he said.

"If the referendum doesn't pass, then we do not buy the racetrack, and that's the end of it," Carlino said. "We just can't support live racing without some other revenue line."

With video lottery subsidizing racing, he said, April purses for horsemen would be $40,000 to $50,000 a day, double what they are now. Within a few months, he said, they would probably rise to $60,000 to $75,000 a day.

Of the four counties in West Virginia with racetracks -- two thoroughbred and two greyhound -- Jefferson County is the only one that has not endorsed video lottery. State lawmakers decreed in 1994 that the tracks could install video-lottery machines as long as local voters approved.

Charles Hall, a leader of Citizens for Sanity, which opposes more types of gambling at Charles Town, said that he doesn't want to see the track close, but that he believes it can be self-supporting if managed properly.

A 61-year-old systems analyst for a Department of Defense contractor, Hall said video-lottery machines are so seductive they would result in problem gambling and crime, as well as undesirables streaming into Jefferson County.

"Gambling that convenient attracts the people who can least afford it," Hall said.

But Mary Via, a member of the Charles Town Council and executive director of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, whose husband covers the track for the Daily Racing Form, said: "I look at it as a business and economic issue. When the track closes, this county closes up, as far as I'm concerned."

Pub Date: 11/05/96

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