W.Va. slots venture is no gamble at all Charles Town track sees revenue soar

October 18, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Diane Elsbree pushes the buttons. Norm handles the money. And for hours yesterday, this husband-and-wife gambling team from Frederick County shoved dollars into slot machines at the horse track here.

Until last month, Charles Town was just a homely country race course where horses that couldn't make it anywhere else were welcome.

Now, it's a little slice of Las Vegas in the West Virginia mountains JTC where the Elsbrees can spend a day, and maybe win a few bucks.

"We try not to lose more than $100 a day," said Norm Elsbree, a 58-year-old federal retiree, as he peered intently over his wife's shoulder at revolving images of lemons and plums. "Let's face it, if we both play, it doubles our money [lost]."

Only 15 miles from the Maryland border in this small crossroads, Charles Town Races is the latest track in the region to offer slots, along with three in Delaware.

Even as Maryland racing gears up for one of its biggest days of the year -- the Maryland Million at Laurel racecourse today -- the industry is warily watching the expansion of gambling on the state's borders.

The Maryland sport, it glumly predicts, will inevitably suffer from the competition from slots.

While some key members of the General Assembly support allowing Maryland tracks to have slots, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has vowed to veto any such legislation, saying that slots would lead to full-blown casinos and increases in crime and compulsive gambling.

In lieu of authorizing slots, the assembly and Glendening approved an $8 million package of state assistance for the racing industry this year and are considering similar aid for next year.

Charles Town, which threw a big bash last night to thank local supporters, has 400 video gaming devices working and will add 600 just as quickly as they can be built and inspected.

In five weeks of operation, bettors have pumped $17.5 million into the machines.

The track's share of earnings has been $651,000.

"We're very pleased," said William Bork Sr., president of Penn National Gaming Inc., the Pennsylvania company that owns Charles Town. "Let's just say I wish we had more machines."

Slots profits will only soar in coming months, as a $20 million renovation is completed, more machines are installed and the track steps up its advertising in Baltimore and Washington.

Already the gaming devices have altered Charles Town's financial balance.

Horse racing, both live and beamed in from other tracks, generates gross revenue of about $100,000 a week for the track's owners. Last week, profits from the slot machines were more than 50 percent higher than that.

On top of that, revenue from the slots has also pumped tens of thousands of dollars a week into the purses awarded to the horses that race at Charles Town year-round. And the track's new owners are giving the racing area a much-needed overhaul.

"It's going to be the salvation of live racing here," says Vance Sencindiver, 75, a retired West Virginia judge.

Sencindiver walked over to see the slots the day they opened, but he hasn't been back to the machines. He's strictly a horse player.

Horse racing seems only a rumor to most of the people playing the slot machines in the lushly carpeted gaming room.

The track's owners have constructed what is, in essence, a free-standing casino -- with flashing, noisy machines and a Hollywood theme, complete with fake palm trees. Waitresses deliver free soda and coffee to patrons, and employees politely explain how to play the 10 games offered on each machine.

Charles Town officials estimate that 20 percent of the track's racing customers are from Maryland, a proportion they expect to hold steady in the slots room.

Joan Brunton and Sharon Harwood, gambling buddies from Lusby in Calvert County, have been playing the slots together for some five years, first in Atlantic City, N.J., and more recently at the Delaware tracks where casino gambling has been phased in over the past two years.

Yesterday they opted to try Charles Town.

"I don't know if I like these machines," said Brunton, a secretary at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. "I miss the handles."

Unlike machines found in many Atlantic City casinos, the Charles Town devices have no handle to pull and no coins come spewing out to winners. Instead, the player takes a voucher from the machine to a cashier to collect.

Would the duo from Lusby stay in Maryland to gamble if slots were legalized there?

"I sure would," said Brunton.

But Harwood said she has mixed feelings about the prospect of gambling so close to home.

"I do and I don't want it," Harwood said, taking a break from the machines. "I know I would be gambling more often than I should."

Charles Town's owners are eager to tap into the Maryland market and have begun some radio advertising in Baltimore, 75 miles from the track. Tour bus operators are also being wooed.

"They're turning it into a palace," said Ron Eyre, president of Eyre Bus and Travel in Howard County, who toured the track this week. "I see it as an ideal one-day trip for groups."

Even with Glendening's firm stand against casino-style gambling, owners and patrons at Charles Town figure it's only a matter of time before Maryland follows the lead of Delaware and West Virginia.

"They're going to get it, eventually," said Bork, president of Penn National. "If we've got it and Delaware has it, we're planning on Maryland getting it. How that works out, who knows?"

Added Norm Elsbree, the Thurmont retiree: "People are going to gamble, whether it's Keno, scratch-offs or poker in the back parlors. If they're going to gamble, why not take in some revenue?"

Pub Date: 10/18/97

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