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Slots luring bus tours to Charles Town Races

March 11, 2000|By DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - John Desmond, the upbeat emcee at the Charles Town Races, climbed aboard a tour bus full of racing fans Friday night to welcome them to a night of gambling.

The crowd was pumped up, and it was obvious the party had already begun as their bus pulled up to the front entrance of the track.

"How is everybody?" Desmond asked over a public address system on the bus.

They yelled in response.

Desmond asked the group how many were members of the track's Player's Club, which entitles them to free prizes.

No one raised their hand. For many, this was their first trip to the thoroughbred track.

"We don't get out much," yelled someone from the back.

Desmond gave the crowd a quick rundown of the layout of the track, then let them go for a night of fun.

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"I love doing that," Desmond said, climbing down from the bus. "They're ready to have fun."

Reminiscent of the late 1970s when numerous buses would bring fans to the former Shenandoah Downs track, the tour bus business is coming back to Charles Town.

Penn National Gaming officials started working to lure bus tours back to the track after the company took over the racetrack, said Ann Fortner, group sales coordinator at Charles Town. The tours gradually started coming back, and up until last December were bringing about 1,000 race fans to the track every month, she said.

Track owners were happy with the numbers, but knew the big draw at the track would be slot machines. When the track unveiled its slot machines in December, it nearly doubled its tour bus business, Fortner said.

Nearly 2,000 people a month are now coming to the track through bus tours, she said.

Most of the tours are coming from Baltimore and Washington, Fortner said. Dover Downs in Dover, Del., has typically been a popular track for Baltimore race fans to enjoy live horse racing and slot machines, Fortner said. Now that Penn National has pumped millions of dollars into Charles Town to make it a first-rate facility, gamblers are turning their interests to the local track, Fortner said.

"We have newer amenities and a fresher face," Fortner said.

The bus tour that came to the track Friday night was put together by a restaurant and lounge in Mount Airy, Md., known as Memories Charcoal House.

One of the passengers, Lucy Swaim of Sykesville, Md., said her sister came to Charles Town and liked it.

"I have gone on bus tours to Atlantic City and this is a lot closer," Swaim said.

"We're just here to party, basically," said another member of the group who did not want to be identified.

Competing with big gambling towns like Atlantic City is part of the business. Casinos in Atlantic City give away money and food to gamblers to attract them to their facilities, Fortner said.

Groups who come to Charles Town Races on bus tours are also offered food and money, Fortner said. If the group is at least 30 people, each player can get a free buffet and a $5 slot machine voucher. If they do not want a buffet, they can receive a $10 slot machine voucher, Fortner said.

Gamblers are "pretty savvy" customers and will shop around for deals, Fortner said.

The track has been welcoming between three and five buses a day, Fortner said. Sunday is the biggest day, when up to 15 buses might come to the track, Fortner said.

Patrons arrive at the track for several hours of gambling and are usually taken back the same day, although there are some overnight packages, Fortner said.

Another type of bus service known as "line runs" are also bringing fans to the track. Line runs are regular bus trips to the track in which the driver stops at different towns along the way to pick up patrons, Fortner said.

At least two line runs are operating from Hagerstown and Washington, Fortner said.

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