Ten weeks ago, Charles Town Race Track presented its first Sunday racing program and its officials were talking optimistically about the future. After suffering serious financial problems and almost going out of business, the track seemed certain to survive. The tide had turned, it seemed.
But it has now become clear that the tide has now turned, to the dismay of the corporation that owns Charles Town, the horseplayers who love it and the townspeople who need it. In what should be the most lucrative part of its season, the track is still losing money.
When Sunday racing was inaugurated, officials hoped it would generate handles of more than $600,000 and ofset Charles Town's poor midweek business. But these predictions haven't materialized; last Sunday, the track handled only $414,000.
The most obvious reason for Charles Town's recent woes, of course, has been the gasoline shortage. For Washingtonians, an outing to Charles Town represent a 120-mile round trip. Even though gas has been plentiful in the vicinity of the track, the fear of being stranded probably has kept many potential customers away.
John Bettaglia, who became Charles Town's general manager five weeks ago, refuses to blame the track's problems on the gas shortage. "That's really a copout,," he said. "There are service stations open here; it's really no problem. And horesplayers would find gas if they had to dig their own well."
Battaglia knows that Charles Town's problems are more basic. Increased competition for the betting dollar -- especially from Maryland's harness tracks -- has taken business away from Charles Town. That loss of revenue has meant smaller purses, and the lower purses have led to lower-quality racing that drives more customers. away.
Diehard horesplayers had been willing to accept the cheap racing in order to take a shot for windfall in the many gimmick bets that Charles Town offers. But since the Internal Revenue Service instituted its 20 percent withholding tax on big payoffs at the track, these gimmicks have been much less attractive.
"There's no magic wand for this place," Battaglia conceded. But he has tried to attack the track's problems by making it a more interesting place to bet.
"I like to bet," he said. "But I can sit here for nights without finding a decent spot to bet. With our purses, we're not going to get good horses, but we can at least try to get some better bad horses."
To do this, Battaglia has lowered the minimum purse at Charles Town to $1,500, and used the extra money to beef up the purses for higher-class races. He also hopes to lure some stronger stables to West Virginia, from places like Cahokia Downs and Fairmount Park.
While Battaglia is performing his duties with bettors in mind, one of his decisions drew howls of protest from the track's best customers. Battaglia decided to abolish the Big Exacta, the gimmick bet that produces many spectacular payoff, and he said "That was so popular that I almost got lynched."
Battaglia figured that the federal government was withholding some $600,000 a year from the Big E Payoffs, and that money was taken out of circulation at the track. For the same reason, he would also like to cut down on the number of trifectas the track offers, but horsemen are balking at this, because they get a larger share of wagering from trifectas than other gimmicks.
But Battaglia knows that the things he can do will not turn around Charles Town's fortunes dramatically. The only change that might do that is some form of tax relief from the West Virginia legislature. Up to now, however, the politicians in Charleston have not displaced much sensitivity to the track's problems.
Charles Town must handle $375,000 a day to break even. It is averaging $310,000, and that figure will decline sharply this fall and winter.
Last winter, when the track's prospects appeared especially bleak, its New York-based owner, the Kenton Corp., appeared Quite willing to shut it down permanently.
That could happen again, although Battaglia said, "I haven't heard any talk about closing this place down. I think they'll stick it out if they can just reduce the losses."
But given the extent of Charles Town's problems, reducing losses -- let alone making a profit -- will not be easy.