by Nicole Kraft
The Buckeye State welcomed two new racetrack operators June 23 as the Ohio State Racing Commission approved the sale of both Beulah Park and Thistledown, which are to be purchased by casino companies.
The approval of the Beulah Park sale to Penn National Gaming Inc. was a mere formality, as its representatives had come before the commission to answer questions in May. The focus at the June 23 meeting was on Harrah’s Entertainment’s purchase of Thistledown, and whether the deal was contingent on video lottery terminals coming to Ohio racetracks.
“This sale is not contingent on VLTs coming to Ohio,” said Scott Wiegand, a Harrah’s vice president and associate general counsel. “We are committed to moving forward with legalization of VLTs at the tracks in Ohio, and will use the resources of our company to bring that about. My personal opinion is it is likely to occur, but there are many challenges.”
Greg Miller, Harrah’s senior vice president of development, explained that Harrah’s has been studying the Ohio market “for years” and had been in active dialogue about purchasing an Ohio track since last September. Though Harrah’s is known primarily as a casino company, it currently owns all or part of five racetracks, including 100% ownership of Harrah’s Chester Casino & Racetrack in Pennsylvania, Harrah’s Louisiana Downs, and Players Bluegrass Downs in Kentucky; and partial interests in Turfway Park and Kentucky Downs in Kentucky.
The purchase price for Thistledown, contingent on the sale closing July 31, is $43 million, down from the original asking price of more than $85 million due to the removal of a contingency related to a guarantee of racetrack VLTs, Wiegand said.
Many of the commissioners’ questions—and one from the audience—centered around Harrah’s relationship with Cleveland-based Rock Ohio Ventures and its ability to buy into the Thistledown property at a later point. Rock Ohio Ventures is the holding company for casino investor and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who is already slated to open in Cincinnati one of four casinos approved last year by Ohio voters.
Miller acknowledged that Harrah’s has “a relationship” with Rock Gaming that would allow, under certain conditions, Rock Gaming to petition the commission to become a partner in Thistledown. He said, however, he had no knowledge of, and could not comment on, rumors that Rock Gaming had funded the efforts of LetOhioVote.org, which has challenged Gov. Ted Strickland’s plan to place up to 17,500 VLTs at Ohio racetracks without a vote of the people.
Miller also declined to elaborate, when asked by commissioner Ted Brown, about horse racing’s future in the Buckeye State, except to say Harrah’s will put its vast network of resources to work at Thistledown and become an integral part of the Ohio racing community.
“Our initial goal is to drive toward breaking even,” Miller said. “Our near-term plan is to bring in a group of folks who work at our joint-venture tracks, as well as from Louisiana Downs and Chester, and make sure our best practices are applied at Thistledown.”
As for PNGI, the Pennsylvania-based company already owns Raceway Park, a Toledo, Ohio, harness track, and is in line to operate two of the four non-track casinos in the state. The sale of Beulah Park to PNGI was announced earlier this year.