Two tractors chugged around the brown dirt track in the crisp winter air as if tonight was to be another of the Charles Town Turf Club's 245 racing nights.
But the track and Shenandoah Downs, its sister track here, were empty tonight and the only wagering in town was whether the track owners' threat to close the tracks forever was real or a bluff.
It was an issue of no small moment to the town's 3,000 residents who long have realized that racing is to Charles Town what the Navy is to Norfolk and Uncle Sam is to Washington: It is the community's economic mainstay, employing 2,000 directly and another 3,500 indirectly.
Today, as discharge notices went to the track employes, townsfold debated whether the closing threat by the New York-based Kenton Corp., announced the day before, was in reality only an appeal to the West Virginia legislature for more racing revenues and more racing dates.
"it's a gimmick to get the state to do something," insisted Buzz Hoffman, bartender at the Finish Line Club, which sits across from the Charles Town Turf Club. "This is a way of making people in Charles Town stand up and yell," agreed a local banker.
Whether or not the closing becomes reality, there was no dispute among the town's merchants yesterday about what a closing would do to Charles Town, located 65 miles northwest of Washington in the West Virginia panhandle. "It's going to be terrible for the whole economy, not just in Charles Town, but in Jerfferson County," said Oliver Kastle, a clothier.
A closing would cause ripples throughout the panhandle, others said. "There are quite a few horse farmers in the area who might have a lot of trouble with their mortgages," said Mrs. James E. Watson, who runs a local real estate office with her husband.
Most residents were skeptical, not angry, at the surprise closing announcement. They noted that track officials have asked the state repeatedly for Sunday racing -- the last effort failed in the legislature last year -- and that the legislature is scheduled to meet again next week.
"I think that has a lot to do with it," said Robert Cain the town manager. "I think they're just bluffing," said Louis Luccarelli, owner of a local pizza parlor. "They're trying to get the state to go their way."
At the Charles Town Turf Club offices, where a sign greets visitors with "Hope You Have a Good Night," Alvin Trenk, Kenton vice chairman, was talking about a bad year.
The two tracks, Shenandoah Downs and the Turf Club, both owned by Shenandoah Corp., a Kenton subsidiary, lost $250,000 last year, and projected losses for 1979 were $750,000, he said. In addition, according to general manager William McDonald, Kenton will have to write off $400,000 that it paid in advance to horse owners.
"There's nothing that can keep us open," said Trenk. Then he immediately conceded that the Kenton might try to keep the track running if the state legislature approved Sunday racing, lowered the state tax on the recepits at the betting window, and agreed to cover the costs of state-ordered requieements such as lab tests on horses.
Trenk, who said the tracks would be fully shut within two weeks, denied he was giving the state legislature an ultimatum. "It's not a gun to anybody's head," he said.
Many local residents disagreed. They noted, for instance, that while the track doors were being boarded up, most of the current shutdown operations looked theatrical. Company officials further encouraged that view yesterday by announcing that they had just received a report on racing's economic effects on Jefferson County.
The only paragraph that was disclosed from the report, prepared by a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm, said that racing provides 26 percent of the county's nongovernment payroll and 38 percent of its private sector jobs. "In a local context, racing at the Charles Town Turf Club has a very major impact on the economy of Jefferson County," it said.
In Charleston, the state capital, Gov. Jay Rockefeller, sided with those who saw the closing announcement as a threat to the legislature. "There are various techniques that have been used over the past couple of years to encourage Sunday racing," he told a press conference.
Rockefeller estimated that the state would lose $4 million to $5 million in racing taxes if the tracks, the only ones in the state, close.
Many Jefferson County residents long have opposed Sunday racing but yesterday some said they had changed their minds. "It's necessary for the surivial of the industry," said City Manager Cain, a former Sunday racing opponent. "I have contended all along that if Sunday retailing was legal, why not Sunday racing," said Oliver Kastle, head of the local retailers association and former opponent of both.
Besides the track, the only major local employers here are the Dixie Narco Co. a vending machine manufacturer, the Badger Powhatan brass works, and the General Telephone Co. with perhaps 1,000 jobs among them. "I don't know any company right now that could absorb the layoffs." one businessman said. "But I just don't think the track will close."