Tiny track finds its slot Gambling: Now that video-lottery terminals are approved, homely Charles Town Races expects to reopen after renovation to a changed, but golden era.

November 11, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Always a little homely and never pretentious, Charles Town Races has enjoyed its niche at the bottom of the racing world for more than six decades.

But yesterday, the track's loyal patrons said farewell to the old Charles Town as it shuts down for 4 1/2 months to make way for a new style of gambling.

The voters of Jefferson County, W.Va., last Tuesday overwhelmingly approved legalizing video-lottery terminals -- which are similar to slot machines -- at the track.

By the time Charles Town reopens in April, it is slated to have received a $16 million overhaul, hundreds of the video-gambling machines will be in operation and the little track in the mountains will be forever changed.

"It's a little sad for people -- bittersweet," said Andrea Demyan, a Charles Town resident who came to the track yesterday. "It's the end of an era, and we can only hope for better things to come."

For 63 years, the track in Charles Town, a small crossroads of about 3,000 residents, has welcomed the slowest and cheapest horses to compete for small purses.

Once many such tracks operated in Maryland, in towns including Cumberland, Hagerstown and Havre de Grace. Those and many others around the country are now only memories.

While tracks such as Laurel and Pimlico were closer, many people from the Baltimore and Washington areas preferred to make the trip to Charles Town -- about 75 miles southwest of Baltimore. Some bettors came on trains that once stopped on a siding a short walk from the track's gate.

Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover came often, and actors Mickey Rooney, Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster visited.

What they found was a laid-back, three-quarter-mile track where the crowds were small and the horses close.

Today, the track is perfectly presentable, if a little worn and bland. The yellow and brown pennants out front are frayed and faded, and horsemen complain about the rats in the barns.

"We need to be rejuvenated," said Roger R. Ramey, the track's president. "We need a new input of finances that will bring this place back to life."

The track this year will lose an estimated $2 million, according to officials. The horse-racing business is changing rapidly, and many tracks, including Charles Town, have been forced to add )) new, faster-paced forms of gambling to attract patrons who don't like the long waits between races.

Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns a successful track in Grantville, Pa., plans to buy Charles Town. Penn National joined local supporters to put on an aggressive election campaign and sold county voters on the notion that the video devices were necessary to save the track and the jobs of 1,200 people who depend on the year-round track for employment.

"I think this is going to be really great for this area," said Ralph Seekford of White Post, Va., referring to the coming of the video gambling. "There's not that much here for the people."

Seekford, 72, has been coming to Charles Town for about 60 years, delivering newspapers there as a child, and later persuading grown-ups to place bets for him when he was too young. He now owns a few horses, a couple of which race at Charles Town, and he stops by the track most days.

His wife, Anita, wore horseshoe earrings yesterday and cried as the afternoon wore on -- tears brought on by the prospect of the track's extended closing, as well as the coming changes when it reopens.

"I'm old, I guess," she explained.

Video lottery terminals offer high-speed gambling with a variety of themes, including card games such as blackjack. The machines pay off in vouchers that are cashed at nearby money stations.

When the machines get plugged in at Charles Town next spring, people involved with Maryland racing will be watching closely. With slot machines at the tracks in Delaware and video gambling at Charles Town, the Maryland industry worries about losing business.

At the place where that loss could be felt first, the Cracked Claw restaurant and off-track betting parlor in Urbana, Md., about 30 miles from Charles Town, bettors seemed divided.

"I have no interest in video lotteries or slots or whatever you call them," said one gambler.

But Bob Wilson of Gaithersburg, Md., said the Charles Town races might be a place he visits next spring with his wife. She would play the machines; he would bet the ponies.

"It could be a good place to spend an evening," he said.

Brande Larrimore, an exuberant piano teacher from nearby Shepherdstown, W.Va., was hired as field director of the Jefferson County election campaign to win approval for the video gambling. Yesterday, she roamed the track with a video camera to capture the end of the era.

"During the campaign, I really got to know the racetrack, only I kind of fell in love with it," Larrimore said. As for the camera, she said, "I want to remember every crease and wrinkle."

Aside from the new owners, the group most excited about the coming of video gambling is probably the people who race and train horses at Charles Town. Yesterday, the track awarded $23,000 in purses in nine races and the track's average daily purse this year is the lowest in a quarter-century.

Next spring, horsemen expect that amount to more than double, although the purses would still drastically lag behind those of Pimlico or Laurel, which handed out $215,000 in purses in 10 races yesterday.

"You just can't help but be excited when you look at going from a terminal case of horse racing to one where there's no limits," said Dick Watson, who owns and trains a handful of horses with his wife. "There are unlimited possibilities."

Pub Date: 11/11/96

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