Charles Town Race Course opens Friday night, under new management.
Bob Leavitt, who retired from racing in 1975 after 17 years as general manager of Shenandoah Downs, has been brought back to head the local rescue mission. Charles Town is hurting, suffering increased competition from Penn National, Rosecroft Raceway and year-round action on the Maryland majors.
"We have to get the people to come back." Leavitt declared recently upon returning from his retirement home in North Port, Fla. "Pen National (a more modern plant near Harrisburg, Pa.) sure raised some hell with us by taking fans out of York and Lancaster and that area. It is not going to be easy."
Charles Town needs help from the West Virginia legislature in the form of tax relief from the state for higher purses. Such aid will not arrive until July, if at all. Until then, Leavitt says, "we just have to go back to making people happy, to making this a nice place to come to, to having some fun."
Central to the track's problems, however, is the fact that purses will average only $21,500 a night at this meeting. This is not adequate.
"The horsemen have agreed to cooperate to try to get this track rolling again," Leavitt emphasized. "The average should be $27,000 to $28,000. That is our aim. To do it, the state will have to give up some of its share of the takeout on wagering. It currently gets 5.75 per cent of every dollar bet to 5.75 for the horsemen, 5.65 for the association (the track owner) and .10 for the county. The state is going to have to surrender something from its part of the total 17.25 take-out. The answer is not to increase the total take, not to tax the bettors more."
Sunday racing has been suggested as another way for Charles Town to stage a quicker comeback. Leavitt is not convinced.
"We're looking at it," he said. "The question is whether we would antagonize as many people as we would make happy. Besides, Sunday racing couldn't begin until September, even if everything went perfectly, and we need relief now."
Several changes have been made in an attempt to spur business immediately. The Big Exacta is being offered again, in addition to the Jackpot, the Trizactas, the Exactas and the Daily Double. Nine races will be presented Tuesday through Thursday, with 10 races Friday and 13 Saturday. Post time will be 7:15 weekdays, 6:15 Saturday. There will be no racing Mondays.
The Big Exacta has been absent here for two years. It will be held on the fifth and sixth races during the week, on the seventh and eighth event Saturday. A bettor must select the first two finishers in order in the first of the two races in order to exchange that ticket for one on the second half of the pool.
In the Jackpot, held on the last race, a bettor must correctly select the first four finishers, in order. Both the Big Exacta and the Jackpot have rewarded up to $40,000 for $2 in the past.
The people like the Big Exacta. That's why I'm bringing it back. It's as simple as that," Leavitt explained.
The general manager is hoping area fans will respond to a return to "the way things were" here. Certainly the "happy track" formula worked before, for decades. But Leavitt realizes that times have changed and that the increased competition, particularly from Penn National, has made an impact as far south as Washington.
"When it was announced last year that Charles Town wouldn't open until March 18, after closing on Dec. 4, people began to understand how important racing is to this area's economy, with 1,500 people being out of work and horsemen having to go to Pennsylvania or Maryland if they want to race," Leavitt said.
The citizens asked for the early opening, which was granted.
"We're getting cooperation from everyone," Leavitt said. "The outlook is pretty good if we can show people who used to come here how much we'd like to have them back."
The best move made to date in that direction was the parent corporation's bringing Leavitt out of retirement. He knows the territory. But does he miss the Florida sunshine?
"The only people I feel sorry for are the golfing buddies I left down there," Leavitt remarked. "We played almost every day on a lovely course near my home, some 30 miles south of Sarasota. It was wonderful. I think maybe I should send them $15 a day just to keep them going in the style to which they had grown accustomed."