In the mid-1960s, I used to travel to Charles Town race track with an impoverished horseplayer who was obsessed by a single dream: hitting the twin double.
Usually, he would have only $2 or $4 in betting money, but that lack of capital did not deter him from driving through mountains, through blizzards if necessary, to make the wager that could return as much as $25,000 on a single ticket.
Charles Town had a special hold on horseplayers, who would drive tortuous roads to get there, or take long, bumpy bus trips from as far away as New York, or ride the old race train (running the risk of losing their money in a crooked poker game enroute). So the announcement yesterday that the track was ceasing operations made many of us feel as if we had suffered a personal loss.
The decision was made by the Kenton Corp., and it has two possible interpretations.
It could be a bluff, a game of political brinksmanship, designed to force the unions, the horsemen and especially the State of West Virginia to make important economic concessions to the track.
Or it could be the response of a disappointed corporation that expected to make an immediate profit on its first racing investment, lost money, instead, and chose to cut those losses quickly.
Either way, it would be easy to denounce the New York-based corporation as a bunch of heartless capitalists, willing to inflict unhappiness on so many people, and to destroy the economic lifeblood of an entire community, at the drop of a hat.
But even though it may not be the most public-spirited, forward-looking of enterprises, the Kenton Corp. is not the real villain. If Charles Town is truly dead, it was killed by politicians -- the ones at the federal and state levels who curshed it with their taxes.
For years, Charles Town and its sister track, Shenandoah Downs, were successful and profitable. The management attempted to treat customers well, giving them attractive and comfortable facilities and, more important, the hope of a windfall.
A horseplayer needed some special motiviation to make the long journey into the mountains and Charles Town offered it in the form of exoitc wagering. Even while other tracks stuck to the traditional win-place-show betting, Charles Town was offering exotica like the twin double, the big exacta and the jackpot.
The rapid expansion of the racing industry in the past few years squeezed many Eastern tracks out of existence, but Charles Town's unique appeal enabled it to withstand the increased competition from Penn National and from the Maryland harness tracks. It did, at least, as long as the exotic bets continued to lure customers.
State legislatures are continually eying race tracks for new sources of revenue, and last year West Virginia joined a nationwide trend to increase the takeout on exotic wagers to 25 percent. This exorbitant taxation took away large chunks of money that otherwise would have kept circulating through the betting windows.
At about the same time, the federal government imposed a 20 percent withholding tax on race-track winnings of more than 300 to 1 and exceeding $1,000 -- as Charles Town's gimmicks usually did. In a year and a half, the IRS confiscated $1.5 million from bettors at the track. Very soon, Charles Town regulars realized that playing the exotic wagers was a hopelessly unprofitable proposition.
Even while they were being hurt in 1978 by the defection of their best customers, by terrible winter weather and by construction of a bridge at Harpers Ferry that made driving to the track a nightly headache, Charles Town officials were talking optimistically. Much of this optimism was based on the hope that West Virginia would legalize Sunday racing and give the track one day a week free from competition in Maryland.
But when the Sunday-racing proposal expired in the legislature, the Kenton Corp. might well have concluded that it was a losing proposition to deal with a state government so eager to take and so unwilling to give. Or else it may have decided that it needed to take extreme measures to jolt West Virginia into action.
The ultimate fate of the track may not be decided for weeks or months. But in the meantime, workmen are boarding up the entrances, horsemen have been told to vacate the grounds in two weeks, and local horseplayers are wondering if they will ever have the chance to bet a big exacta again.