Mountaineer Park

Mountaineer Park

Coady Photography

Optimism and Wariness as Mountaineer Reopens

The West Virginia track has made improvements but still faces strong competition.

Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort will begin its 10-month meet March 2 with some upgrades and increased promotion, but officials also are keeping an eye on neighboring states as they expand gambling opportunities in a crowded market.

Mountaineer, which has video lottery terminals and table games, paid $23,602,257 in purses over 210 racing days in 2011, according to The Jockey Club Information Systems. The 2012 meet will begin with a similar purse structure.

The West Virginia racetrack for several years has seen a leveling off of business, however, primarily because of competition from casinos in neighboring western Pennsylvania. In 2004, two years before racetrack slot machines became law in Pennsylvania, purses totaled roughly $37 million a year at Mountaineer.

Now, a casino is being built in Cleveland, Ohio, roughly a two-hour drive. In addition, Penn National Gaming Inc. plans to move Beulah Park, near Columbus, Ohio, to Youngstown, a major market for Mountaineer. The new track would have VLTs.

In Pennsylvania, a proposed track near the Ohio border has been licensed for harness racing, though it still must apply for a gaming license. Western Pennsylvania already has three casinos, two of them at racetracks.

And then there is Wheeling Island, a Greyhound racetrack casino in West Virginia about a one-hour drive south of Mountaineer.

Mountaineer was the first racetrack in the country to have VLTs. In 1990 several hundred were installed in the grandstand as part of a pilot program that eventually became law about four years later.

Trainer John Baird, recently elected president of the Mountaineer Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said Feb. 27 horsemen are concerned about any increase in competition for gaming dollars or horses. For that reason the track is holding the line on purses for 2012.

“We’re not raising purses,” Baird said. “We need to see what (the Cleveland casino) does to our business.”

Baird noted the Mountaineer purse account has an $8 million underpayment. Much of that money, however, will be used this year unless revenue from pari-mutuel wagering and gaming increases.

Rose Mary Williams, director of racing at Mountaineer, said Feb. 27 there has been a positive sign: wagering on full-card simulcasts was up against budget projections for January and February.

“That’s good news,” Williams said, “but we will start the meet with the same purse structure as last year. We’re also doing some things to enhance racing.”

The track hired International Sound to handle its video, meaning there will be more camera angles and a clearer television picture. In conjunction with that the stewards’ booth is getting new LCD TVs.

Public relations will be stepped up this year in an attempt to increase awareness at certain times of the year, such as opening weekend. Mountaineer also is working with Horse Player NOW on targeted editions of its online “Night School” program, Williams said.

On Feb. 27 the West Virginia Racing Commission approved Mountaineer’s request for $750,000 to fund the Aug. 4 West Virginia Derby (gr. II) and $200,000 in related bonus money. The funds come from a video lottery promotional fund for horse racing.

The WVRC also approved a request from Mountaineer to revise its 2012 stakes schedule. Three stakes were dropped in order to meet an agreement with horsemen that no more than 6% of purse money be used for stakes.

Mountaineer is owned by MTR Gaming Group, which also owns Presque Isle Downs & Casino in western Pennsylvania and Scioto Downs, a harness track in Columbus, Ohio. Construction is well under way at Scioto Downs on a VLT parlor.