Off to the RACES

Charles Town: Thanks to slot machines and horse racing, this small community in the West Virginia panhandle averages 200,000 visitors a month.

March 03, 2002|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,Special to the Sun

There is great hiking in the hilly terrain around Charles Town, W.Va. Tourists can go tubing on the Shenandoah River, play golf at several public courses or take in auto racing at Summit Point Raceway.

History buffs can see the wagon that bore the abolitionist John Brown to his hanging in 1859. Gourmands can feast at the Hillbrook Inn, a charming Tudor-style estate tucked away in the woods. In summer, theatergoers troop to nearby Shepherdstown, where the Contemporary American Theater Festival showcases up-and-coming playwrights.

But the petite, 70-something woman standing next to me isn't interested in any of that. She makes the 100-mile round trip from Chambersburg, Pa., three nights a week for one reason: The 2,000 slot machines at Charles Town Races & Slots.

"I love it," she says. "I used to play bingo, but since I found this, this is what I play."

As the Maryland legislature debates whether to allow slot machines at four state racetracks, Charles Town, not far from the Maryland line near Frederick, offers a glimpse of how one small community has fared after the arrival of slots.

Since the first 400 machines were installed at the track in 1997, they have transformed this town of 3,000 people into a gambling emporium for an average of 200,000 visitors each month, most of whom come from Washington, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Nine bus companies, including five from Maryland, regularly ferry people to and from the track.

"It's a good moneymaker for the town," my elderly acquaintance observes as she plucks quarters from a plastic cup and plunks them into the two machines she's playing.

At the track's OK Corral, players tap the white "Go" buttons on the slot machines -- technically called video lottery terminals -- and gaze hopefully at the displays.

"Come on, wild cherry!" one woman shouts, looking for a jackpot. "Oh, I love those wild cherries."

Visitors wagered almost $1.8 billion at Charles Town Races & Slots in the last fiscal year, according to the track. From that amount, nearly $45 million went to the state and more than $1.7 million went to Jefferson County, where Charles Town and the track are located.

Open seven days a week, the racetrack is on the edge of town in the shadow of the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains. Live horse races run at least three nights a week year-round, and other races are simulcast from elsewhere.

The gambling rooms form a maze of glowing machines that hum a high-pitched whine like some kind of New Age music. So focused are the predominantly gray-haired men and women playing the machines that it seems few would notice if their favorite movie star ran naked through the room.

Many of the gamblers are smoking cigarettes, and although complimentary alcohol is available to those wagering, the preferred drink seems to be soda. Waitresses clad in outfits ranging from respectable to skimpy mill about with drink trays. Food concession stands are sprinkled throughout the gambling area.

On the second floor, more dignified white-tablecloth dining prevails in a large terraced space that overlooks the track. One flight up on the third floor is a buffet and the Silverado Lounge, where there are live performances every weekend, including dinner theater.

In the small hall between the slot rooms and the section of the complex devoted to horse racing, a woman sells West Virginia lottery tickets. A few steps away stand a row of automated teller machines.

The slots debate

On the racing side of the facility, men of all ages -- and very few women -- wait in line to place bets and watch the TVs simulcast races from about 20 other tracks.

Outside, people preview the thoroughbreds as they're led into a paddock off the track. Jim Plummer, 45, scans his program as he scrutinizes the horses. For 30 years he's been coming to the track from his home in Winchester, Va., about 25 miles from Charles Town.

"Since the [slot] machines came," he says, the track has turned around. "If it wasn't for them, this track would have gone under."

The revenue generated by the slot machines has brought Charles Town Races bigger purses and better horses, Plummer says, which improves the entire experience. It's also given him something to do with his wife on weekends. While he plays the horses, she plays the slots.

But slots did not gallop into Charles Town handily. When the issue first came up as a county referendum in 1994, it split the town.

"It was like another Civil War," says Mary M. Via, executive director of the county chamber of commerce. "A lot of people pictured other areas they had been to that had machines and said, 'We don't want that for Jefferson County.' It generated a lot of bad feelings that still remain."

The debate about slots has had an equally polarizing effect in Maryland.

Gov. Parris Glendening's steadfast opposition to gambling was formulated in his youth, according to Mike Morrill, the governor's spokesman, when he watched his mother lose the family's food money playing bingo.

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