- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va.

Dickie Moore, a racetrack lifer, thought his 30-year stay at Charles Town Races was over when the track concluded its racing season on Dec. 17, 1994.

The track was hemorrhaging money, attendance was awful, purses were small and the facility was falling apart.

A month earlier, a referendum for slot machines — the only hope, it seemed, to keep Charles Town open — had failed by a 2-to-1 margin.

“I thought it was over,” Mr. Moore said. “Most of us were in denial because it had been here since 1933, and it’s what Jefferson County is all about. There wasn’t anything else in this county that was giving us a source of revenue.”

Said Roger Ramey, a county resident who has been involved with West Virginia racing for 20 years: “The situation was very dire. It just wasn’t making it, and it was tough because it was the economic engine of our county. We knew the track could not make it unless it had some help.”

Enter Penn National and slot machines.

A series of loans allowed Charles Town to reopen in 1995, giving its supporters time to make another effort to get slot machines approved. That summer, Penn National entered the picture. Then limited to operating one track and several off-track betting operations in Pennsylvania, Penn National wanted to expand to other states and include alternative forms of gaming at tracks.

Penn National told Charles Town officials if slot machines were approved, it would buy the track. And so it happened: Slot machines were approved by voters, and the track was purchased.

Slot machines were introduced on Sept. 10, 1997, and Charles Town Races and Slots since has become a model for thoroughbred tracks that aspire to provide more than only racing as entertainment.

The two-floor “racino” has 4,500 slot machines and already is in its fifth phase of improvements, an $85 million project that includes a hotel, a second parking garage, three barns and a training track. Charles Town also hopes to add table games to its racino.

On the track, daily purses have risen from $20,000 to $200,000, the horse population has grown from 750 to around 1,500, and nearly 5,000 workers associated with the track and casino get a regular paycheck.

Charles Town has successfully found its niche, attracting customers from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District. The slot-machine revenues have equaled rapid increase in purses. Fourteen percent of Charles Town’s slot-machine income goes to the purse fund.

The larger purses have produced bigger and better fields.

“The quality of horses has skyrocketed because the purse money has gone up 50 percent in only six years,” said Jeff Cernik, who sets the morning-line odds at Charles Town. “They’ve kept raising it and raising it, and now you see trainers like Scott Lake, Grover Delp and Steve Klesaris coming, because they can run against a weaker breed of horses for almost the same purse as they would in New York and Kentucky.”

Mr. Moore, for one, is satisfied with the niche Charles Town has created in the Mid-Atlantic circuit.

“I’ve always said there has to be a minor leagues somewhere,” he said. “And we’re at the top of the minor leagues.”


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