Like them or not, slots inspire track attendance


July 19, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Say what you will about the perils of slot machines, they sure make life exciting for the tracks that have them.

At Charles Town, a new president has arrived to oversee construction of a hotel on the clubhouse turn where guests may be able to wager on the races from their rooms. And at Delaware Park, nominations for next Sunday's Delaware Handicap -- because of its slots-driven purse of $500,000 -- read like a who's who of fillies and mares from the East.

The owners of Charles Town, Penn National Gaming Inc., have named James Buchanan president and chief operating officer of the West Virginia track and slots casino. After a 26-year career at resorts and casinos -- no horse racing on his resume -- Buchanan arrived in May at Charles Town.

He said he was hired "to give the casino more of a casino feel than a video-arcade feel." Charles Town has 742 video slot machines and hopes soon to have 798.

Also, he said, plans are in the design stage for a seven-story, 150-room hotel -- to be expanded eventually to 300 rooms -- next to the track's clubhouse turn. Balconies would overlook the track. Rooms could be wired so that guests could bet on the races.

What's more, he said, Penn National owns enough land around the track that an "entertainment complex" could be the goal of future expansion.

So how are things going at Charles Town?

"Business is good," Buchanan said.

At Delaware Park, where slot machines continue to devour money, most of the East's leading fillies and mares were nominated for the track's marquee event, next Sunday's 1 1/4 -mile Delaware Handicap.

Included are the Bill Mott-trained Ajina, last year's Eclipse Award-winning female; her stablemate Escena, who has won four straight graded stakes (two of them Grade I); the Neil Howard-trained Runup the Colors, winner of last year's Grade I Alabama Stakes at Saratoga, and the most intriguing of all, Relaxing Rhythm, the Pat Byrne-trainee who is undefeated in eight races.

The $200,000 Delaware Oaks for 3-year-old fillies, to be run Saturday, also attracted a stellar list of nominees, including Jersey Girl, winner of six straight races (the last two Grade I) and eight of 10 career starts. She is trained by Todd Pletcher at Belmont Park.

Demands on Downs

Although the Virginia Racing Commission last week approved Colonial Downs' request to trim its fall thoroughbred meet from 30 to 25 days, the commission tacked on a condition: Spend $400,000 for marketing and promotion.

Robin Traywick Williams, head of the commission, said that was not a suggestion. It was a demand.

The commission ordered track management to detail a $400,000 marketing plan at the commission's August meeting, and then to prove at its November meeting that it spent the $400,000.

"We want to see cultivation of fans," Williams said. "We did not approve the 25-day meet as a Band-Aid for whatever problems Colonial Downs has. We look at the approval of these dates as the beginning of a restructuring that will assure the long-term success of Colonial Downs."

Featuring the introduction of its much-ballyhooed turf course, the fall thoroughbred meet -- the track's second -- will begin Sept. 7 (Labor Day) and end Oct. 11. Post times will be 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 4 p.m. Monday.

The rationale for racing Mondays, Williams said, was that few tracks race that day, thus gaining Colonial Downs increased exposure at simulcast sites. Also, she said, it provides a full week of racing for horsemen stabled at the track.

Et cetera

After the Virginia commission agreed to cut Colonial Downs' dates, the Maryland Jockey Club announced it would add three days of racing to Laurel Park's summer schedule: Aug. 26-28. Edgar Prado has surged into the national lead for wins by jockeys, leading Russell Baze, 229 to 211, through last Sunday, according to Equibase. Trainer Ben Feliciano Jr. continues his tear at Laurel Park. After winning with both starters Thursday, Feliciano has won with nine of 14 starters through Friday.

H. Graham Motion and Dale Mills hold commanding leads after three races in their divisions of MATCH (Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Championships). As a result, Motion and Mills are one-two in the trainer standings, and the horses' owners (Sam Huff of Bursting Forth and J. D Brown, James Ware and Nixon Asomani of Testafly) are one-two in the owner standings.

A record 825 2-year-olds have been nominated for lifetime eligibility in the Maryland Million program. They represent 65 percent -- another record -- of the Maryland-sired foal crop of 1996. The 13th running of the Maryland Million for horses sired by Maryland stallions is Oct. 17 at Laurel Park.

The Maryland Horse Breeders Association and Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association Thoropac '98 crab feast is July 27 at 6: 30 p.m. in Exhibition Hall at the Timonium Fairgrounds. Tickets are $100. Proceeds go to candidates for state office who support horse racing.

Bobby Lillis is heading Timonium's participation in America's Day at the Races, inaugurated last year as a national showcase for horse racing. Set for Labor Day, this year's festivities at Timonium include an exhibit about Ruffian, demonstrations by veterinarians, horseshoe giveaways, autograph signings by jockeys, an equine art show, giveaways by the Railsitters and Maryland Million Inc., and the White Rose Collectibles' replica of the Cigar horse van. Stuart S. Janney III's Coronado's Quest jumped from No. 28 to No. 20 in the Daily Racing Form's top 40 by virtue of his smashing victory in last weekend's Dwyer Stakes. He'll likely meet the only 3-year-olds ranked ahead of him (Real Quiet, No. 4; Victory Gallop, No. 7) on Aug. 9 in the Buick Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

Pub Date: 7/18/98

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