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Slots have been key to revival

November 30, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -The day Charles Town Races opened - Dec. 4, 1933 - it had no winter competition in the mid-Atlantic region or the Northeast, according to track lore.

But by the 1990s, it was losing millions of dollars, forcing it to close for part of 1995.

The key to revival, some said, was video lottery terminals, or slot machines.

In 1994, Jefferson County residents voted down a proposal to bring slot machines to the track.

But two years later, when Penn National Gaming offered to buy the track and restore it to glory, it insisted on having slots. This time, a referendum passed.

Slots have infused the track with money, luring players who pour billions of dollars into the machines - and win most of it back.

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The amount of money wagered on slot machines jumped from $565 million in fiscal year 1999 to $2.976 billion in fiscal year 2003.

West Virginia Lottery figures show that $1.325 billion had been wagered 41/2 months into the current fiscal year.

After the track and the state get their shares, Jefferson County and its municipalities receive some of the profits.

The track started with 400 slot machines in 1997. There now are 3,500 machines.

Charles Town Races & Slots employs about 1,250 people.

Roger R. Ramey, vice president of public affairs, said another 2,200 or so people have jobs directly tied to the track's horse racing: owners, jockeys, grooms and other support workers.

The gaming areas add up to about 83,000 square feet. Ramey said the racing is probably half that size.

A parking garage that opened last year added 1,500 spaces, for a total of 3,700.

Charles Town Races & Slots is open every day except Christmas.

Hoping to close budget shortfalls, Pennsylvania and Maryland each are thinking of legalizing slot machines.

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