Voters in a local referendum June 30 approved the addition of table games at Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort, giving management and horsemen hope the new offerings will boost business at the West Virginia facility and perhaps increase interest in the live racing product.
With 100% of the precincts in Hancock County reporting, the vote was 5,022 in favor and 3,503 against. On June 9, voters in Ohio County approved table games for Wheeling Island Racetrack & Gaming Center, which is located about 45 minutes south of Mountaineer. Both tracks are on the Ohio River on the eastern Ohio border.
A crowd gathered in the convention center at Mountaineer, which already has video lottery terminals, to track the results throughout the evening. Track officials were busy fielding phone calls from representatives compiling results at all 28 precincts in the county.
A state law passed earlier this year allowed for local-option votes in the four counties with racetracks. Table games were defeated June 9 in Jefferson County, home of Charles Town Races & Slots; the final vote comes Aug. 9 in Kanawha County, where Tri-State Racetrack & Gaming Center, a Greyhound track, is located.
“I think it’s a big night for Hancock County and our employees,” said Edson “Ted” Arneault, chief executive officer of Mountaineer owner MTR Gaming Group. “Now we have to get to work. People will find out this really is about jobs. People will see everything we said is going to be real.”
Arneault said the facility would add about 700 jobs, but that doesn’t include what he called “echo” jobs that could come to Hancock County as Mountaineer further develops. There are plans for a hotel expansion, a new golf course, and shops and restaurants.
“We’ve got 2,000 acres to help Hancock County develop into a destination area,” Arneault said.
Tamara Cronin, director of public relations at Mountaineer, spearheaded the table games campaign. She noted the track didn’t hire an agency but rather rallied its employees, who went door to door lobbying for the measure’s passage.
“All politics is local,” said Cronin, who once represented Hancock County in the state legislature. “Our employees are the people who really got this passed.”
The benefits to horsemen won’t be as apparent as they were when VLTs were legalized at Mountaineer. Purses will get 2.5% of table games revenue and breed development 2%; purses get 14% from VLT revenue and breed development 1.5%.
Horsemen and Mountaineer officials couldn’t project how much revenue table games may produce for purses in a year. The more important issue, they said, was protecting business at the track given the advent of slot machines at tracks in neighboring Pennsylvania.
“We had to preserve what we have,” Arneault said. “If it hadn’t passed, we may have seen a decrease in purses. But the amount that will go to purses (from table games) is in the millions, and that doesn’t take into account new slots play.”
“If we don’t keep (our current customers), we’re SOL,” said Chuck Bailey, president of the Mountaineer Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “We worked hard to get table games passed in the legislature because we knew we’d be in financial trouble last year when they took the workers’ compensation money. It comes out every year for 15 years until it’s paid in full.”
Soon after he was elected, Gov. Joe Manchin moved to fix the state’s ailing workers’ comp system. One of the sources he tapped was VLT revenue to purses. Purses at the Thoroughbred and Greyhound tracks in the state contribute a total of about $11 million a year to workers’ comp, which means the legislated purse percentages aren’t always accurate.
For much of this year, Mountaineer horsemen got 8% of VLT revenue, and from July through part of September, it will fall to 7%, said Lora Bailey, executive director of the Mountaineer HBPA. Thereafter, it’s expected to return to 14% for the rest of the year.
Though there remains a $2-million underpayment in the purse account, Chuck Bailey said: “We’re scraping the bottom to maintain these purses.” Thus far this year, purses have averaged about $140,000 per night at Mountaineer; that average will increase when about $1.5 million is paid in stakes purses Aug. 4 on West Virginia Derby (gr. III) day.
Lora Bailey said Arneault committed to work with horsemen on a synthetic surface at Mountaineer if table games passed. Arneault said he plans to work together with horsemen but first wants to once see how the synthetic Tapeta Footings surface performs at the company’s new track, Presque Isle Downs near Erie, Pa.
Mountaineer director of racing Rose Mary Williams said poker tables would be located on the first floor of the track’s grandstand in an effort to encourage crossover between cards and horse racing. An adjacent part of the grandstand is being renovated to create a new air-conditioned simulcast area with easy access to the apron for live racing.
The poker and simulcast areas could be ready by September, officials said. The other table games will be located in the gaming and hotel complex on the property.
Arneault said he believes table games will be a hit, and he plans to get the racing community involved by scheduling events such as poker tournaments for licensed horsemen. Mountaineer may even attempt to get the events televised.