Slots lead rebirth at Charles Town Horse racing: While casting a nervous eye on Maryland, the once-moribund West Virginia track basks in the glow of financial health.

October 27, 1998|By TOM KEYSER | TOM KEYSER,SUN STAFF

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- In his 34 years at Charles Town Races, the horse track 10 minutes from Maryland, Dickie Moore has seen nothing like it.

People around the racetrack are smiling. They're looking forward to the future. Why? Video-lottery terminals, a.k.a. slot machines.

Since September last year, when Charles Town opened its glitzy casino, the machines have sucked up money like a vacuum cleaner. Into the track's 798 machines, patrons have wagered $437 million.

Proceeds have elevated racing purses to record levels, financed $50 million in renovations and rejuvenated a failing, 65-year-old track.

"I guess like everybody who's spent most of their life around the racetrack, I was of two minds about slot machines," said Moore, Charles Town's general manager. "But believe me, we couldn't make it without them. As a lifelong racetracker, I'm glad they're here."

As more than 5,000 racing fans and slots players witnessed Sunday during West Virginia Breeders Classics XII, Charles Town is thriving. The Breeders Classics, races for state-bred horses, constitute the richest weekend of racing in West Virginia.

Charles Town greeted patrons with its fresh face: Spanish-mission architecture outside, renovated grandstand and dining room inside and, on two floors of the clubhouse, the Silver Screen casino with its Hollywood theme of movie posters, art deco and green and purple neon.

A sadder face greeted customers as recently as two years ago.

A quaint, country track long popular with Maryland bettors, Charles Town teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1996, it lost $2 million.

But late that year, after local voters approved slot machines, Penn National Gaming, the parent company of Penn National horse track near Harrisburg, Pa., bought the Charles Town track, shut it down for renovations and reopened as Charles Town Races and Gaming.

It reopened for racing in April last year and opened its casino five months later with 224 machines. That was a start, but not enough.

By the end of the year, the track had paid out $800,000 more in purses than it took in from betting on racing and slots. It gradually added 574 machines.

Proceeds soared -- so much so that the track has raised purses seven times this year. Ranging from 3 percent to 10 percent, the increases have boosted purses to $54,000 a day, about one-third of Laurel Park's, but easily the highest ever at Charles Town.

And that $800,000 deficit in purse payments has been transformed into a $1.4 million surplus. Moore said purses could reach $70,000 a day in the next six to 18 months.

"It's brought people back into racing," Moore said. "From about '92 to '96, we lost probably 500 to 600 owners. They just couldn't make any money. Now, I'm bumping into people I haven't seen in 10, 12 years."

Charles Town doesn't charge for admission to the racetrack or casino, so attendance is elusive. But Moore estimates that attendance averages about 2,500, ranging from 1,500 Wednesday afternoons to 7,000 Saturday nights.

The track races thoroughbreds Wednesdays and Sundays beginning at 1 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays beginning at 7: 15 p.m. It simulcasts thoroughbred, Standardbred and greyhound racing every day. The casino is also open daily.

Betting on the races, live and simulcast, has increased about 20 percent from last year, Moore said, to a daily average of about $186,000. Charles Town does not simulcast its races to out-of-state tracks, but its management hopes to begin doing that next year.

It also plans on scheduling about $200,000 worth of stakes races.

"We see nothing but better days ahead," said Dick Watson, president of the Charles Town chapter of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

The track plans not only to add more machines, but also to ask the state legislature for permission to replace the video-lottery terminals, which pay off in vouchers redeemable for cash, with the more popular slot machines that pay off in a noisy flurry of rushing coins.

And the track plans on breaking ground next year on a 150-room hotel on the clubhouse turn. It will have shops, restaurants, music nightly as well as terminals in the rooms so guests can bet on the races and watch them on TV or from their balconies overlooking the track.

The only thing that could dampen this giddy tale is competition, Watson said; namely, competition from Maryland.

"If Maryland gets slots at racetracks, it will hurt," he said. "If Maryland gets slots at racetracks and OTBs, then it will really hurt."

Slots at off-track betting sites in nearby Frederick and Hagerstown would especially hurt, Watson said.

It didn't take him long to ask a visiting Marylander: "By the way, how's your governor's race shaping up?"

Pub Date: 10/27/98

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