The Final Stretch Charles Town to close after gambling critics lose their bet

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Charles Town, W. Va. -- Residents of sedate Jefferson County gambled with the unthinkable: the closing of their largest industry, the Charles Town racetrack. They lost.

After 61 years as the county's main attraction, the quaint, country horse track will run its last race Sunday.

A thousand track employees will lose their jobs. Several hundred slow-running horses will lose their lives. And this usually placid community will be left with the bitterness engendered this fall by its divisive debate about the track's future.

"This has been a civil war down here," says Bob Via, who faces unemployment after a 32-year affiliation with horse racing. "It's been brother against brother, family against family, church against church. It's going to take a long time for these wounds to heal."

Ironically, for a county that's lived off the profits of thoroughbred racing for six decades, the heated community debate was about -- of all things -- gambling.

Track owners say they had no choice but to close the venerable racetrack after residents voted down a proposal last month to allow video gaming machines there. Claiming crippling losses, management said it needed the machines -- which feature games such as bingo and poker -- to survive.

Opponents countered that the machines would lead to casino gambling, increase crime and disrupt their tranquil lifestyle. Jefferson County has only 35,926 residents; Charles Town, the county seat, just 3,122.

So county voters, long used to cries of hardship from the track's owners, called their bluff.

"I guess people thought that since this place has been here for 61 years -- it's an institution in Jefferson County -- that it would be here forever," says D. Keith Wagner, track president and one of its owners. "But here we are. The end is near, I'm sorry to say."

A reprieve is not out of the question. The track is for sale, and a few parties have made "very preliminary" inquiries, Mr. Wagner says. But, he says, no deal is expected soon.

The vote was close: 4,412 to 3,874 against the machines. The next day the track announced its closing. The community was stunned. Angry track workers marched two weeks ago from the track to a meeting downtown with county leaders.

One man rode on horseback through the large doors of the historic Jefferson County Courthouse, where the abolitionist John Brown was convicted of treason in 1859 after his raid on a federal arsenal at nearby Harpers Ferry. Man and horse were quickly turned out by sheriff's deputies.

Emotions still run high today. Track workers accuse people who voted against the video machines of gambling with their livelihoods.

"It's always a shame when a factory or industry closes," says Bob Via's wife, Mary, a member of the Charles Town Council and the administrative assistant at the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce. "But when a community has a choice to do something about it and doesn't, it's a real shame.

"We've been so involved in all aspects of the community. We feel betrayed by the community we've supported for generations."

Like many families linked with the track, the Vias face an uncertain future. Mr. Via, who will turn 60 next month, covers the track for the national Daily Racing Form. He and his wife were born in Charles Town. Their two children and one grandchild live here.

"This isn't the time in our lives we want to be starting over," Mrs. Via says.

Many gambling opponents say they still don't believe the track owners' claims of financial woes. Edgar Ridgeway, a 67-year-old county commissioner who opposes all gambling, alleges the owners cooked their books to show losses when, in fact, they have millions stashed away.

"It's all hidden," Mr. Ridgeway says. "They've got about five different corporations over there."

Charles Town Mayor Rufus W. Park bristles at such remarks.

"Unfortunately, we have some county officials who don't give a damn if we lose our two largest employers," Mayor Park says. "And you can quote me on that."

The track's closing is Jefferson County's second major economic loss in three years. Its only large factory, Dixie-Narco, which produced soft-drink vending machines and employed 1,000 workers, moved to South Carolina in early 1992.

Doom talk dismissed

"If we lose the racetrack," says George E. Vickers, executive director of the county Chamber of Commerce, "it's going to have a very devastating effect on everyone in Jefferson County -- restaurants, motels, service stations, hardware stores, feed stores, farmers. I could go on and on and on. . . . I travel a lot, and the racetrack is how everyone knows where Charles Town is located."

Leaders of the gambling opposition dismiss talk of doom. Charles Hall, who formed the "Community Values Coalition" to fight the video machines, says he's certain that someone will buy the track and that horse racing will survive at Charles Town.

Like many newcomers escaping what he calls the "rat race," Mr. Hall, 59, moved here from Montgomery County in 1983. A systems analyst for a Department of Defense contractor, he drives an hour and 15 minutes to work in Reston, Va.

He supports horse racing but not video gambling -- and certainly not casino gambling, which would be next, he says.

"Big money attracts drugs and prostitution and all that stuff," Mr. Hall says. "We moved here to get away from that."

Mr. Ridgeway, the county commissioner, says he's sorry that so many workers will lose their jobs. But once the racetrack is gone, he says, businesses seeking a wholesome environment will move into Jefferson County.

"The track brings in a class of people who want something for nothing," Mr. Ridgeway says. "It's like a cancer in your community."

Video gambling, he says, "would damage our morals, and our morals have been damaged enough already."

Mr. Wagner, the track president, doesn't respond to such accusations anymore. "I can't help what other people think," he says. "I'm beyond that."

The facts are, he says, that the track lost $103,000 two years ago and $590,000 last year. It projects losing more than $1 million this year.

Some of the ills afflicting Charles Town are common to racetracks across the country: declining attendance and wagers because of a shortage of good horses and competition for the betting dollar from lotteries, casinos and sports gambling.

Charles Town carries the additional burden of subsisting in the shadow of Maryland's tracks, especially now that gamblers at Laurel and Pimlico can bet on simulcast races day and night -- races from all over the country.

Nearly half of Charles Town's patrons come from Maryland. The track is only 25 miles west of Frederick.

"I don't think people understand how complicated this business is today," Mr. Wagner says. "It's changed, just like the corner drugstore. You used to go there to get a prescription filled. Now you can get a prescription filled and also buy half your groceries and a hose for your garden.

"That's diversification. And that's exactly what we wanted to do -- diversify our business."

'This is my home'

Paul Espinosa understands the horse business -- all too well. He is the track's communications director. He's 32 and has worked at Charles Town since high school, when he walked horses and bused tables.

A native of Jefferson County, he's married and has two young children. His family moved into a new home last Monday.

"What am I going to do?" he asks. "I don't know. I really don't. Look for another job, I guess. I'd hate to have to move; this is my home. But you do what you have to do to provide for your family."

His father, Victor, 56, is a former jockey and now a trainer on the backstretch. Sitting in the driver's seat of his pickup truck by his stable, he says he prays someone will buy Charles Town and keep it open.

On the floor of his truck cab are $10 worth of West Virginia lottery tickets. The Powerball jackpot last week totaled about $100 million. Mr. Espinosa did not have the winner.

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