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Thoroughbred track expansion eyed in Charles Town

August 13, 2003|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Horsemen and owners of Charles Town Races & Slots are considering expanding the size of the facility's thoroughbred track, a project that could cost more than $5 million if it is approved, track officials said Tuesday.

The proposal calls for expanding the three-quarter mile track from six furlongs to seven furlongs, said track President Jim Buchanan.

Expanding the track by a furlong would allow the width of the track to be expanded by 20 feet on the home stretch and 10 feet on the back stretch, Buchanan said. A furlong equals one-eighth of a mile.

One of the primary advantages of the expansion is it would make it easier for horses to negotiate turns on the track, track officials said.

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Turns are tricky areas where injuries can occur and Charles Town's turns have particular problems, such as being flat, track officials said.

Because of the flat turns, pressure is exerted on horses as they try to negotiate the turns, said Dick Watson, president of the track's Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

"This track historically has been hard on horses," Watson said.

Under the proposed expansion, turns would be banked to make them easier on the animals, Watson said.

Drainage and lighting on the track also would be improved, Watson said.

There is a concrete base under the existing track, making it difficult for water to drain easily from the track following rains, Watson said.

To lengthen the track, some barns probably would have to be torn down and rebuilt on property the track owns across the street along Fifth Avenue, Buchanan said. Additional property - about 50 feet - may have to be purchased on the side of the track that faces the Turf Motel along East Washington Street, he said.

If the project goes as planned, horse racing would have to be temporarily moved to the old Shenandoah Downs track during construction, Buchanan said.

Much of the expansion work could be completed without interrupting live racing at the current track, but it would have to be moved to Shenandoah Downs eventually when construction started affecting the oval, Buchanan said.

Spectators would be unable to watch racing at Shenandoah Downs, Buchanan said. Races there would be televised at the Charles Town track to allow patrons to view them.

Buchanan said it is too early to determine the cost of the project, although it could be "well past the five million dollar mark. It would be in the millions of dollars, obviously," Buchanan said.

Talk of expanding the track has been ongoing for years, and details about the current proposal are being worked out by HBPA officials and Peter Carlino, chief executive officer and chairman of the board of directors of Penn National Gaming, which owns the track, Buchanan said.

Any proposal worked out by Carlino and the horsemen would have to be approved by the state racing commission, Buchanan said.

The chairman of the West Virginia Racing Commission said the track's plans seem to be a "sensible approach" to improving racing at Charles Town Races & Slots.

"We would not in any way try to obstruct or delay," said George Sidiropolis of Wheeling, W.Va.

Buchanan said he hopes a proposed expansion plan can be finalized in about 60 days.

"I guardedly say it's not a done deal by any means," Buchanan said.

Improvements to the track have been steady ever since Penn National Gaming took over the oval.

The work recently included a $54 million project that reflected a extensive transformation of how the facility operates.

The project included construction of rooms under the Slot City gaming area that are intended to increase the efficiency of food, beverage and liquor operations.

The newly opened Slot City gaming area included a streetscape scene where patrons play slots in different buildings that have a Western town theme.

By the end of the year, the facility should have 3,500 slot machines online, making it the largest slot machine enterprise in West Virginia and throughout the mid-Atlantic region, officials have said.

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