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Purses up at Charles Town

April 24, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - When Charles Town Races temporarily closed in 1994 after an unsuccessful attempt to get approval for video lottery, Jeff Runco packed his bags, too.

Runco was one of the leading trainers at the oval, but with revenues steadily declining at Charles Town, he wasn't going to stick around.

"It was terrible. Nobody could make any money," he said.

Runco leased out his Leetown Road farm and moved his family to Hershey, Pa., so he could train at Penn National Race Course near Harrisburg.

He stayed at Penn National for four years, enjoying purses that were more than double the ones at Charles Town.

Then Charles Town saw a rebirth, one so good that Runco had to come back.

Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns Penn National, took over the West Virginia thoroughbred racing track in 1996 after getting approval from county voters for video lottery.

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Penn National started a massive $30 million renovation of the 65-year-old track, which included new barns, simulcasting areas, a renovated grandstand and dining room and a sleek video lottery parlor known as "Silver Screen Gaming."

Patrons reacted enthusiastically, allowing the track to enjoy $21.8 million gross revenues from 900 video lottery machines in fiscal year 1997-98.

This year, gross revenue from the machines is already past $17 million.

The money has driven purses for live races to levels never seen at the track, said Dick Watson, president of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

Purses, which are the daily winnings divided among horse owners, trainers, jockeys and other workers, were increased nine times in 1998 and twice this year.

When the most recent increase goes into effect May 7, purses will climb to about $77,000 a day.

Before Penn National took over, purses were averaging about $21,000 a day, Watson said.

"This is by far the best they have had at Charles Town," said Runco, who is back at Charles Town with about 35 horses.

Increasing numbers of owners and trainers are getting in on the excitement at Charles Town.

There are about 1,300 horses at the track, which Runco said is the most he has seen at the oval, and the track is attracting top trainers who never used to bring horses to the track, including King Leatherbury of Mitchellsville, Md., and Dale Capauno of Laurel, Md., according to Runco.

Another indicator of the track's turnaround is the number of horse claims. In what is referred to as claims races, horses can be bought during the heats. This year, there have been 130 claims at the track, probably more than at any other track in the country, said racing secretary Randy Wehrman.

Wehrman said the high number of claims illustrates the excitement over the improved racing product at the track.

Wehrman said one area that can still improve at the track is the handle, which is the total amount wagered on live racing. The handle is averaging about $140,000 a day, compared with just under $100,000 a day the track was experiencing before Penn National took over.

Wehrman said he thinks a lot of patrons became discouraged with Charles Town before Penn National took over and did not return. "A lot of people don't know about us yet, I think," Wehrman said.

Track management predicted at the beginning of the year that they would lose about $900,000 on live racing, Watson said. But Watson believes live racing will become self-sufficient by the end of the year when the track gets slot machines, which will help it compete with gambling operations in Atlantic City and Delaware.

Bill Bork Jr., director of marketing at the track, would not talk about the figures.

But overall, Bork said it is impressive how video lottery has boosted revenues at the track.

Runco said trainers and horse owners are sensing that the track will continue to succeed.

"You never know what the future holds, but it looks really solid," Runco said.

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