Upset of the Decade? How About West Virginia?

Horse racing is a game of upsets, but who would have thought 10 years ago that the Thoroughbred sport in West Virginia would not only bounce back from the dead, but actually prove to be a desirable commodity?

With the condition book that begins Jan. 20, purses at Charles Town Races will average $115,000 a day. When the Eastern Panhandle track closed several years ago, purses barely topped $20,000 per day. Now, an open allowance race goes for more money.

On Wednesday, Mountaineer Park, located across the state in the Northern Panhandle, announced it would add Friday racing beginning Jan. 19. The demand for races, both by horsemen and simulcasting outlets, led the track to add a fifth day of racing each week.

Purses at Mountaineer, formerly Waterford Park, average $125,000 a day. In the early 1990s, the track was home to $1,500 claiming horses. Now, the minimum claiming price is $4,000, and purses for such races go from $9,000 to $15,000, depending on the conditions.

An owner can claim a horse for $4,000 and, if it wins in its first start and is claimed again for the same price, triple or quadruple his investment in one shot.

Both Charles Town Races and Mountaineer Park derive revenue from video lottery terminals. The revenue has elevated the quality of racing at both tracks so much so that owners and trainers regularly ship from Maryland, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to try to steal big pots.

The huge jump in purses has led to bulky fields, which make for a desirable simulcast product. For example, on Tuesday night, Mountaineer handled more than $900,000 on its live product, $864,000 of it off track. On Saturday, Charles Town's off-track handle neared $600,000 and, due to an increase in traffic in the plant, on-track handle on the live races was $192,000, up considerably from the lean years.

Both tracks have added stakes on a regular basis, and this year's West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer will go for $500,000.