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Races to get coin slots

March 16, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Lucky gamblers soon will hear the clink of coins at Charles Town Races.

The local thoroughbred track, which won the right to install video lottery machines in 1996, is preparing to outfit its gaming parlor with slot machines, thanks to a bill passed by the West Virginia Legislature.

Although plans for the new games are in the early stages, the track will install an estimated 800 to 850 slot machines by the end of the year, said Bill Bork Jr., director of marketing at Charles Town Races.

The track went to lawmakers for help in winning approval for the slot machines after some patrons said they preferred the feel of real slot machines to video lottery.

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Video lottery machines are similar to video poker machines found in private clubs. Players can touch screens of video lottery machines to select games, and winnings are tallied on paper slips that are dispensed from the machines.

To receive cash winnings, the winner must take the slip to a window.

The "coin-drop" bill passed by the Legislature on Saturday allows machines to dispense cash winnings.

The new machines to be installed at the track will look like traditional slot machines, with three tumblers in the middle, and an arm on the side to activate the game, said Bork.

"It's a totally different product," said Bork. "We will move very quickly on this."

The slot machines will replace most of the track's 900 video lottery machines, although about 25 percent of the old machines will be kept at the track for those who like video poker, said Bork.

The coin-drop bill hit several obstacles as it made its way through the Legislature. At one point, the Senate amended it into a bill to regulate video poker machines found in private clubs. But the House ignored the bill and added the coin-drop proposal to another bill dealing with the sale of a state building.

It was then sent back to the Senate, which passed it.

Del. Dale Manuel, D-Jefferson, said he supported the coin-drop bill because he wants to help the track stay competitive with other tracks and gambling operations in the region.

Despite concern that allowing video lottery in Jefferson County would drive up crime, gambling addiction and poverty rates, Manuel said people seem impressed with Penn National Inc.'s management of the track.

The track's betting parlor, the Silver Screen Club, with its sleek interior decorated with movie posters makes the track an attractive place to go, Manuel said.

Penn National, which owns two horse tracks and an off-track betting parlor in Pennsylvania, promised to buy Charles Town and spend up to $30 million renovating the track if Jefferson County voters approved video lottery.

County voters approved the games in 1996.

The coin-drop bill and regulation of video poker machines were among several gambling measures considered by the Legislature.

Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, referred to it as the "gambling legislative session."

"And its not coming from the people at the grassroots level," he said. "It's coming from the gambling industry."

Overington, who opposed the coin-drop bill, unsuccessfully tried to include an amendment that would have allowed county residents to vote on the issue.

Pennsylvania lawmakers were considering allowing that state's four horse tracks, including the two owned by Penn National, to have slot machines. Lawmakers wanted a referendum to gauge citizen interest in slots, but the effort failed, said Bork.

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