Shenandoah Downs reopened here Monday after being closed for two years, and the first-night reviews were promising: A crowd of 4,053 bet more than $47,000.
"That's $100,000 more than we'd have handled had the program been run at Charles Town (Race Course)," chirped Bill McDonald, the new general manager of the side-by-side racing plants. "I consider it a very, very good start, especially considering that the temperature was 14 degrees."
The parimutuel machinery will have to stay hot if Shenandoah Downs is to continue to operate Kenton Corp., a New York-based holding company that took control of the local tracks in late September, is not convinced it makes fiscal sense to run two tracks when one will do.
"They consider it an experiment. I don't feel that way" McDonald declared. "I personally felt it was a mistake to have closed Shenandoah in 1976. Bob Leavitt, my predecessor, who came here in 1958, always felt that two tracks stimulated each other. Bob felt that they provided a competitive situation even when they were under the same ownership. I agree.
"Our customers had started to become track sore, sitting in one place all the time with year-round racing at Charles Town," McDonald added. "Shenandoah will provide a change, I think a fresh, ebullient feeling was apparent here Monday night."
Shenandoah will present 10 races nightly this winter, Tuesday through Friday, starting at 7:15 p.m. Thirteen races will be offered Saturday, when post time is 6:30 p.m. The meeting will continue through April 1, by which time Kenton and McDonald will have a good idea just how smart, or how foolish, it was to have spent $50,000 to reopen the second track.
McDonald was in charge of advertising and public relations at Shenandoah Downs for 1959, when the then new plant pioneered night racing in the east, until 1975. His radio commercials are the only bright spots that racing receives in the Washington area, but it is going to take more than a snappy jingle and continued revival of the "Era of Good Feeling" to make these tracks prosperous again.
Penn National, near Harrisburg; year-round racing at the Maryland majors and an increased number of racing dates on the Maryland harness circuit have cut deeply into Charles Town's bottom line. Bill Schwadron was a disaster here as the head man under what he turned into a one-ring circus.
Still, McDonald is encouraged.
"Shenandoah will enable us to offer much more variety with distances during our racing programs," he noted. "This is a five-furlong track while Charles Town is three-quarters. We have the jackpot back, along with the trifectas, the big exacta, the exactas and the daily double, and we have started our push for Sunday racing.
"This time I think we are going about Sunday racing the right way - from the Charles Town community to the state legislature in Charleston, not from Charleston to Charles Town, as was done in 1972."
The approval of Sunday racing is important, McDonald insists, if the local tracks are to be able to provide adequate money for purses.
"We're talking about making up $13 million a year, which is what we're down, of exchanging a $300,000 weekday for a $550,000 or $600,000 day," the general manager said. "We've gone before the County Council and next, the Chamber of Commerce here and, in effect, we have asked them to give us a chance with Sunday racing, to at least have a local vote on the question.
"That is what we hope to get, of the legislature grants permission. I think we have a good chance of being granted that opportunity, and a good chance that Sunday racing would be approved by the people in this area."
The selling of Sunday racing to Charles Town citizens will not be easy. Then again, that is McDonald's specialty: convincing the public he knows what is best for them.
"We do it all for you," has been a remarkably successful line for one McDonald's. If Sweet William can get a similar message across here, in the weeks ahead, the Shenandoah and Charles Town race tracks will be on their way to better days - and nights.