After 70 years, Charles Town is still on track

December 07, 2003|by LARRY YANOS

Albert Boyle wasn't gambling when he decided to open the doors of the Charles Town Racetrack for the first time on Dec. 2, 1933.

He figured thoroughbred horse racing was going to be successful. He was correct.

Fans ventured from near and far - coming by train, bus and automobile - to see the debut of live racing at the West Virginia oval.

Last Tuesday, the Charles Town Racetrack - now recognized as the Charles Town Races & Slots, unrecognizable to the 1933 crowd- celebrated its 70th birthday.

Charles Town was the country's first northern racetrack to operate during the winter. Oil drums containing chunks of blazing coke heated the grandstand.


Its owners spent $160,000 to build the racetrack, a huge sum in the depression era.

Ann Hilton, a thoroughbred racing owner/trainer who has added the name historian to her list of accomplishments at Charles Town Racetrack, says the 70th anniversary of the historic facility deserves recognition.

"Seventy years is pretty special." Hilton said. "We have seen the good, the bad and everything in between here. All in all, though, it's a pretty neat place."

Hilton said her dad, Jim Bell, ran a horse on opening day in 1933.

"I've always been interested in the history of Charles Town Rracetrack and I decided to get more involved in 1998," Hilton said. "I started the Charles Town Racing History Wall in 1998 and it now includes photographs, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia which I think the racing patrons and track employees enjoy seeing."

Hilton tries to update the display whenever possible.

"There's interest in the History Wall, people inquire about it," Hilton said. "It includes a lot of different things, that's what I'm most proud of. It kind of makes us remember where we came from."

Thanks for the memories

Gerald Dorsey, a Charles Town resident who supported the racetrack his entire life, remembers that opening day.

"I was 7-years-old, my dad took me to the races and it was exciting," the 77-year-old Dorsey said. "Because of my age, they wouldn't let me in so we watched the races from on top of a hill. That was good enough, I had a wonderful time."

Dorsey has been involved with Charles Town Racetrack in one form or another since an early age.

"My dad worked for Goetz Saddlery in Charles Town when I was growing up. He sold equipment, things like rakes and tubs and also repaired saddles for the jockeys," Dorsey said. "I would go to the track with him whenever I could. I really liked being there."

Dorsey's dad started selling Daily Racing Forms at the racetrack in 1941 and son Gerald took over the day-to-day operations in 1962, the year his dad died.

"A guy in Winchester, Va., named Homer Bridges, owned the Valley News Agency and distributed the Daily Racing Form and we took care of Charles Town," Dorsey said. "I sold the form at the track until I retired in 1996."

Dorsey still visits the racetrack and stays involved with two groups. He's on the Board of Directors of the Charles Town Horsemen's Assistance Fund and is treasurer of the Charles Town Division/Chaplaincy Program of America.

"I enjoy helping these groups and I'm excited about the changes at Charles Town," Dorsey said. "I know the slot machines have brought some resentment from the true racing fans but something had to be done to create some revenue. I remember not so long ago the daily purses were $21,000, now they're about $140,000.

"Let's face it, we wouldn't have a racetrack if it wasn't for the slot machines. Gamblers are gamblers and that's the way it is. If you notice, most of the patrons are from out of the state, just look at the license plates and you will see many cars from Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland."

Pony Tales

  • The Penn National Race Course has received approval from the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission to conduct 204 programs of thoroughbred racing in 2004.

    The track will run Wednesday through Saturday nights each week beginning at 7:25 p.m.

    Penn National will also feature full-card simulcasting from other tracks from noon until midnight seven days each week throughout the year.

  • Helped by the arrival of 17 stables to the three Maryland Jockey Club training tracks, fields at Laurel Park have soared during the last three weeks, averaging 8.5 horses per race since Nov. 12, up from 8.0 for the first five weeks of the meet.

    A total of 2,006 horses are stabled at three MJC facilities this winter.

  • Abel Castellano continued his hot riding by winning three races on Wednesday's nine-race card, including a score on multiple stakes winner Sassy Hound ($13) in the $36,000 feature.

    The 20-year old native of Venezuela leads the current fall meet and has won at least three races six times in the first 40 days of the stand.

  • Apprentice jockey Ashton Fitzpatrick returned to the saddle for the first time since breaking her collarbone and elbow in a spill on June 8 in the last race during the Pimlico spring meet. The 17-year-old guided Southern Romp to a sixth-place finish in Wednesday's fifth race.

Larry Yanos is sports editor of The Daily Mail. He covers horse racing for The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131 ext. 2311, or by e-mail at

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