Partners Granted Permit for Thistledown

Caesars Entertainment and Rock Gaming got Ohio State Racing Commissional approval.

The company whose permit to operate Thistledown was approved by the Ohio State Racing Commission Aug. 22 indicated the planned video lottery terminal operation at the racetrack won't be temporary.

Thistledown, which has been owned by Caesars Entertainment Operating Co., will now be operated by ROC Finance, which is a partnership between Caesars and Rock Gaming. The OSRC unanimously approved the permit for ROC Finance. Caesars and Rock Gaming have been working jointly under the name Rock Ohio Gaming to build full-scale casinos in Cleveland and Cincinnati. The Cleveland casino opened earlier this year, and the Cincinnati property is expected to open in the spring of 2013.

Caesars and Rock Gaming officials attended the OSRC meeting to explain the partnership, VLT project, and financing. A chief concern of the Ohio racing industry has been whether Thistledown near Cleveland will be shuttered and its license moved south to the Akron-Canton metropolitan area.

Caesars earlier this year signed a memorandum of understanding with Republican Gov. John Kasich giving the company the option to request to move the racing operation from its current location.

"We love the current location," said John Payne, president of enterprise shared services for Caesars. "We've studied the market for a long time. We have an option to relocate at some point, but I hope you see we're going into this with a big investment for a VLT facility.

"If there comes a time when we deem it appropriate to move to Akron-Canton, you guys will be the first to know. We wouldn't be investing all this time and money if we didn't think there's a play in the current location."

Dan Reinhart, vice president of legal and government affairs for Rock Gaming, said relocation will be part of the discussion in the future, but the companies are focusing on developing Thistledown into a racing and gaming facility. Plans call for the first of about 1,150 VLTs to be operating by the end of the second quarter of 2013.

"We believe Thistledown deserves a build-out," Reinhart said. "Thistledown is a great property, and we want to put on a strong product there."

The gaming machines will be located on the first floor of the North Randall racetrack. The partners already received $805 million in debt financing for their two full-scale casinos in Ohio, and plan to add another $150 million to redevelop Thistledown.

The Ohio Casino Control Commission must approve the financial transaction.

Caesars and Rock Gaming plan to include the gaming operation at Thistledown in broad marketing programs they have for their properties. The company will have two of three gaming facilities in the Cleveland market; the third is Northfield Park, a harness track that has partnered with Hard Rock Entertainment to build VLT and entertainment facility at its current location.

Ohio has seven racetracks. Northfield, located southeast of Cleveland, is the only one not owned by a gaming company.

There remains and outstanding legal challenge to the 2011 law that authorized racetrack VLTs, but most tracks have been moving ahead with plans anyway. Scioto Downs in Columbus was the first racetrack to launch VLTs; gaming began in June.