Effect of table games on horsemen debated

November 30, 2009|By DAVE McMILLION

o Jefferson Co. residents to vote on table games

o Lawmaker changes stand on table games

o Measuring impact part of table games equation

o Racetrack officials: Table games would bring jobs to Jefferson County

o Jefferson Co. residents offer mixed opinions on table games

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- A drop of millions of dollars in live wagering, the decision by track owners to close the track in 1995 after a video lottery defeat at the hands of voters and a shortage of horses to run races at the track were among the problems that plagued Charles Town Races & Slots 14 years ago.

"I've seen the worst here," said longtime Charles Town horseman Ann Hilton.

Now, Hilton said, she is thankful for the boost in revenues the track experienced after Penn National Gaming took over in 1997. She said she also appreciates the way the corporation has expanded the facility and how it has shown its generosity to the community.


Although some horsemen do not agree with the way proposed table game revenues should be distributed to them, Hilton said she thinks voters should vote "yes" for table games for the track during Saturday's referendum.

"I think it's a practical thing. You have to say, 'yes,'" said Hilton, who has been a horseman for more than 50 years and is a volunteer historian at the track.

Owners of the track are asking voters to allow table games such as poker, blackjack, craps and roulette to help the track head off gaming competition, particularly from Maryland, where slot machines have been approved.

The track has more than 5,000 slot machines and if table games are approved, track officials said they would start off with about 85 table games by early summer.

Two sides to the coin

From 1998 through Oct. 31 of this year, Jefferson County has received nearly $32 million in slot machine revenue, and horsemen also have enjoyed profits from the games.

In 1976, the daily average purse distribution for about 10 races at the track was about $21,000, but as of Nov. 28, the daily average purse distribution had increased to $182,256, according to track statistics.

The purse is the amount of money paid in a race. The owner of the horse that wins the race gets 60 percent of the purse. The remaining 40 percent goes to owners of horses that finish second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth.

Hilton said a victory for table games is important to keep the outlook bright for horsemen. Not only have horsemen benefited from the success of the track in recent years, she said, but every resident has been touched in some way by the track's success.

"It's been a great partnership and we've done things right," Hilton said.

The Rev. Douglas Fraim said if table games come, he sees danger ahead for horsemen.

Fraim, head of, a citizens opposition group, said table games will take away from the track's slot machine business, thereby hurting horsemen.

Fraim said there are horsemen affiliated with his organization who are opposed to table games, but "they're afraid to say anything."

Lenny Hale, executive director of the Charles Town Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said slot machine revenue dropped at Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort in Chester, W.Va., in 2007 and 2008, after table games were introduced. But Hale said that was partly due to the fact that Mountaineer took out slots to make way for table games.

In addition, the economy in Chester has been sluggish compared to that of Jefferson County, Hale said.

Richard Thalheimer of Thalheimer Research Associates in Lexington, Ky., who conducted a study on table games for Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective associations in Charles Town and Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort, said slot machine revenue typically drops 8 percent to 13 percent after table games are introduced.

Thalheimer said that is partly based on what he observed at Mountaineer and at Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Altoona, Iowa, which has table games.

Although there has been a drop in slot machine money at facilities when table games were introduced, revenue from table games more than makes up the difference, Thalheimer said.

"It's not that table games are bad," Thalheimer said.

The issue with West Virginia horsemen is that the percentage of revenue going to purses from table games is lower than that for slot machines, Thalheimer said.

Initially, 14 percent of the slots handle -- the total amount bet on slots -- went to horsemen, Hale said. Then the state dropped the percentage to 7 percent so some of the money could be used to pay off a debt in the state's workers' compensation program, Hale said. It will stay at that level until $110 million of the debt is paid off, he said.

With table games, horsemen will get 2.5 percent of the table games handle -- the total amount wagered.

"That's where the problem has been," Hale said.

Several months ago, the HBPA's board of directors voted 6-5 to support table games, Hale said.

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