MTR Gaming Eyeing Ohio Track, Confident About New Erie Track

MTR Gaming is as interested in acquiring an Ohio racetrack as it is in building a new track in Erie, Pa., according to the company's president.

Edson "Ted" Arneault said his company is more interested in buying a racetrack in the West Virginia market, where MTR Gaming now operates Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort, than it would be in other casino properties. The company also owns a casino in Reno, Nev., and one in Las Vegas. He assessed the potential for buying an Ohio racetrack at 50%.

"We are looking at other racetrack properties with the potential for gaming," Arneault said. "In Ohio, it is really a question of price. We want to look at acquisitions that will bring people into our area. We want to get a transaction that make sense in the right market, at the right price, and with the right incentives to try to enhance the product in Ohio."

Ohio is a long way from approving alternative gaming at the tracks. An unsuccessful attempt was made last year to put the issue before voters. Gov. Bob Taft is an ardent opponent of the issue and has regularly threatened to veto any legislation allowing video lottery terminals.

As for the Erie track, Arneault said the company had a better than 50% chance of getting approval from the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission. The commission was scheduled to conduct a hearing on MTR Gaming's license application March 28, but the hearing was postponed at the company's request so additional information could be acquired. Another hearing has not been scheduled, but Arneault is hoping to be heard in May.

MTR Gaming is calling its proposed track Presque Isle Downs. If built, the track would offer nighttime Thoroughbred racing in the summer, year-round simulcasting, and other forms of entertainment. The project is opposed by Penn National Gaming and Philadelphia Park, according to Arneault. Penn National operates an off-track betting parlor in Erie through its Downs at Pocono harness track.

Joseph Lashinger Jr., Penn National's vice president and general counsel, has criticized the project as a transparent attempt to get a foothold in Pennsylvania in the event the state should approve gaming at racetracks. He also questions whether the area can support the OTB and a track. Currently the OTB has an average daily handle that is less than what a former Erie racetrack, Erie Downs, handled back in 1987.

Arneault said Erie is an under-served market and would be supported by a strong surrounding agrarian market.

"I would say we have the political support in Erie," said Arneault, who added that winning support from the other racetrack might also be possible.

"If we don't get the track in Erie, Pennsylvania will have a harder time approving slots," he said. "With a facility in Western Pennsylvania, you'll have legislators who may be otherwise be opponents suddenly become supporters."