On the track, a lone horse is being worked, snorting twin vapors into the morning frost. But it is a pointless gallop. He isn't being prepped for anything. He's just out there, with rider. They are the whole scene.
There is a heavy stillness at Charles Town. The town, the horsemen and the horse players are bereaved. The barricades that now forbid public access to all areas tell the story with their brusque lettering: Track Closed, Final, just like that.
It's a helluva thing to say to the band of the world's most determined horse players who for years invaded Charles Town by night with the track's big payoff in mind. And to the little town that needs its horse business, and to the horsemen with 1,400 horses to feed who were told to clear out in two weeks because the owners mean business.
Business is business and at Charles Town and its sister track, Shenandoah, it has been bad, the owners claim, and say they can show losses to prove it. They point to twin billings -- West Virginia, which slaps an instant 25 percent tax on the exotic Twin Double and Big Exacta and Trifecta bets, and also to the Internal Revenue Service, which took $1.5 million betting money out of action by demanding, instantly, 20 percent of all winning tickets over $1,000.
The tracks are closed but Charles Town horse players are making one last, wishful bet: That the owners are bluffing, and will reopen when the state comes to its senses about the big tax grab.
It all began at Charles Town in 1933 when the late Albert J. Boyle came up with the odd idea that winter racing would thrive in the Shenandoah hills. He laid out a six-furlong track, put up a wooden grandstand, and gambled that Washington and Baltimore horse fans would fight their way to his place, bringing betting money.
They did, among them J. Edgar Hoover who commanded a special table in the clubhouse which had central heat. The grandstand folks made out on the most wintry days by sidling up to old oil drums that sometimes contained coal fires if the track janitor had been minding his chores. In the pressbox the late Walter Haight and his colleagues made do with a smelly kerosene stove.
Washington and Baltimore fans found in Charles Town a friend for all seasons. No more November to April doldrums after Bowie closed and reopened again. So what if the roads were narrow and bumpy and the bridges were under repair most of the time.
Besides, there were special Baltimore and Ohio race trains to the track. Although the trains sometimes were balky, declining the snowy slopes to Charles Town, they were never late for the opening race. Mr. Boyle knew where his bread was buttered. The races wouldn't start until the trains arrived with all those bettors. Those were his orders.
"We wouldn't check in at the scales in the jockey's room for the first race until we saw the train in the yards," said Pat Grant, now a state steward after a career as rider and trainer.
The historic opening day at Charles Town was Dec. 2, 1933, and before the week was out the track had its first "ringer case." It proved to be clear profit to the track which auctioned off the spurious winner in a paddock sale and pocketed the $350 it brought. The swindler never bothered to claim his horse after cashing his bet.
In that first 20-day meeting, Charles Town began establishing the box-car payoffs that were to be the mark of the track and the fascination that brought the fans back. One early winner was paid $590 in the $2 win mutuels. This was before the gimmick bets were later introduced.
One bizarre episode followed another at Charles Town. The track got national headlines one year after it opened because of a five-length victory by Sweep Vestal in one race. The winner should have paid $1,318.50 had there been a single taker but didn't because nobody had bothered to bet as much as a deuce on him. The win payoff went to the second-place finisher, a filly named Tiny Miss which went off at $2.40 to one and gave its lucky backers a $6.80 win mutuel for losing the race.
Some years later there was a 10-minute delay in getting one race off in 1954 because the starting gate was struck by lightning, flattening starter Harold Holland and also the two big draught horses pulling the gate into position. Holland recovered and got the field off before his still-prone equine assistants regained their sense. The rest of that meeting was wiped out by a 19-inch blizzard.
For Charles Town and Shenandoah fans, the big gimmicky payoffs did not come until the 1960s but without them they liked Charles Town racing just fine. If you had a loser, no boring 30-minute wait to get even. Charles Town ran its races 20 minutes apart, and that was good. That kind of action even began to attract busloads from New York, eager for window racing despite the 6 1/2-hour ride.
In Charles Town's early years was this big hump in the infield, shutting off the fans' view for several strides near the 4 1/2-furlong pole, and what went on among the riders behind the hump was sometimes fierce, Pat Grant said.
"That's when you got even with the riders who had done things to you," he said. "I've seen horses come out from behind the hump without a bridle, and with boys out of the irons. Shucks, there were no films, only three patrol judges, and you could do a lot of things. You never claimed foul, you just got even."
Shenandoah was the scene of the first race ever won by a woman jockey. On Feb. 22, 1969 Barbara Rubin won on a horse named Cohaesion. "We didn't like the idea of girls riding," said Grant. "We just felt we'd have to take it too easy and not hurt 'em. We were gentlemen when it came to girl riders."
Barbara Rubin dressed in the first-aid room, but when a second and third girl rider showed up, they built a special area for them adjacent to the jockey's room. Too adjacent, it seemed to certain other parties. The wives of the jockeys got together and threatened to pull their husbands off their mounts unless there were more discreet quarters for the girl riders.
That crisis was solved by General Manager Bill McDonald who erected what he called a "Modesty Panel" between dressing rooms.
The most bizarre Shenandoah happening occurred in the late '60s when in some miraculous manner, jockey Jimmy Thornton not only survived after losing his mount in a multiple spill, but grabbed a loose rein before he hit the ground and pulled himself aboard another riderless horse, finishing the race with it. When asked about his first reaction at finding himself on a strange horse. Thornton said, "Well, my first reaction was 'What am I doing here? I never rode for this man in my life.'"
Shenandoah, the new track, and Charles Town, were rivals before they merged. It was their fierce competition that led to the gimmicks like the twin double and the big bonanza (Pick six winners). And the Trifecta (Pick one-two-three). And the jackpot (Pick one-two-three-four). Charles Town's twin double of $39,916 in 1965 was later topped by Shenandoah's $51,000 to a single $2 bettor.
"We loved those big numbers," said McDonald, then Shenandoah's publicity man. "It permitted the fans to dream, and attendance was always better after one of those big tickets."
To keep the new and struggling Shenandoah track alive in the 1950s, McDonald devised "Appreciation Night" every Thursday. Free admission, of course, and we gave away sports cars, air conditioners and TV sets and a race horse in the drawings. Then we thought up 'Ladies Night.' Every Tuesday a free mink stole for the lucky lady."
And now the tax collectors have spoiled it all. They've laid a dead hand on Charles Town.