A day at the races

November 30, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

Editor's note: This is one in a series of occasional stories examining "Lifescapes" - scenes from everyday life that help define the character of where we live.

Roland Reeley's work space in front of the simulcast screens is set up like any horse junkie's might be - five cigarette butts in an ashtray, a lighter, a pen and a half-full cup of 7-Eleven coffee.

The atmosphere is right, but the handicapping software on his Hewlett-Packard laptop computer is what's most important. It's feeding him betting tips.

"I'm tampering with the idea of being a millionaire," says Reeley, 70, of Middleway, W.Va. He may be kidding - a fair bet with him - but, probably, he's not.


The book that hooked him was "The One Minute Millionaire: The Enlightened Way to Wealth."

Reeley says he never put himself and "rich" in the same thought.

"I always thought it was a selfish idea," he says. "Plus, the good book says they threw the gamblers out of the church."

But this other book he found convinced Reeley he can earn riches - an independent source confirming what his wife has said, that he needs an attitude adjustment. So, he's trying.

At 3:24 p.m., Reeley is seated among a scattering of bettors at Charles Town Races & Slots in Jefferson County, W.Va. His hope, though, is at Philadelphia Park in Pennsylvania - pinned to a jockey named Harry Vega and a horse named Lost in the Music.

Reeley locks his eyes on the simulcast screen just as the horses hit the final turn. Lost in the Music's lead expands, from "slight" to "large" to "staggering."

Reeley is jolted. He jokes about walking out now, ahead. Surely, he won't succeed again like this in front of a stranger.

"I never once gave a man a winner," he says.

Then, he's calm again.

"This is my pursuit," Reeley says. "Nine times out of 10, if you haven't gotten somewhere, you haven't gone far enough. If you ask someone, 'Where's Charles Town Races?' they'll say, 'It's just ahead.'

"My problem is I need to go further."

'Something they can do'

The thread between the two worlds at Charles Town Races & Slots is great anticipation.

"A lot of people here have never been over there," one of the horse regulars says between races.

The slots are glitz and hum and coinfalls and cartoonish themes.

The track is an open-air rush of silks and saddled horses sprinting past as a pack. Inside, around the betting windows, it's a smoky think tank of hunches and systems and prickly rebukes when a "sure thing" is overtaken on the rail.

Roger R. Ramey, vice president of public affairs, describes the complex as a "well-lit, extravagant type of building that houses a lot of entertainment that people would enjoy."

He points to the latest supercluster of slot machines, which puts Charles Town at 3,500.

He shows how themes wind through the gaming center, from the Southwest "OK Corral" to the movie-laden "Hollywood" to the pretend community of "Slot City."

Look, there's a cinema, a water company, a bank, a hotel. But they're just overhead signs and facades that no one notices as they watch for three of anything to show up on a wheel.

"I've been coming here since 1961," says Anna Mallory, 87, of Front Royal, Va., who's dropping quarters into a Life of Luxury machine. She drove herself to Charles Town.

Ramey had just been saying that senior citizens like the slots as "something they can do." Mallory agrees with his assessment.

Ramey notices that Mallory isn't using her Players' Club card. You should, he says. It will give you a better shot at winning a $180,000 house in a Dec. 18 drawing.

That's right, a house. Charles Town Races & Slots is having it built solely for the contest. Because there's only so many Kias, Cadillacs, Corvettes, Hummers and Beetles you can give away.

Rattle and hum

All around Shirley Rusmisel, the electronic spin of one-armed bandits and other slot machines produces a blissful hum, like a church organ might make.

Computer-generated bells signify each win. If a light bulb actually went off when someone got an idea, the bling of these bells might be what you'd hear.

Rusmisel, 68, of Roanoke, Va., is planted in front of a 25-cent Yukon Gold machine. While she plays, her husband, Ray, 72, drinks a beer, watches TV and scans the Daily Racing Form. He's here to bet on the horses; the card starts in three-and-a-half hours.

Ray waits when Shirley plays; Shirley will watch while Ray bets.

At a nearby Filthy Rich machine, a woman lucks into 350 nickels. Rat-a-tat-a-tat, the coins pour down, with a Tommy Gun rhythm.

Philomeana McCabe, 51, who lives near Carlisle, Pa., is looking for a Wheel of Fortune style slot machine. Her co-worker, Michaelle Ellerman, 32, has never played the slots before and isn't picky.

Ellerman sits at an Easy Street machine. She smiles and giggles as each win pushes a cartoon puppy along the squares of a board. At the end, the dog hops into a car and drives to a ritzy estate.

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