Gaming Vote Key to Mountaineer Expansion

Gaming Vote Key to Mountaineer Expansion
Photo: Coady Photography
Live racing will debut in September at Presque Isle Downs, considered a core property by owner MTR Gaming Group.

MTR Gaming Group, which on June 27 announced it has an agreement to sell a Nevada casino for $32 million, will find out June 30 whether it will be able to add table games at its Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort in West Virginia.

MTR Gaming plans to sell Binion’s Gambling Hall and Hotel in Las Vegas to TLC Casino Enterprises. The deal, which could close within six months, would allow MTR Gaming to focus on its core holdings in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, company chief executive officer Edson “Ted” Arneault said in a statement.

The company launched slot-machine gaming at Presque Isle Downs, a new racetrack near Erie, Pa., earlier this year and plans to begin live Thoroughbred racing there Sept. 1. Mountaineer, in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle region, has had video lottery terminals since the early 1990s and hopes to add games such as blackjack, poker, and roulette.

Voters in Hancock County, where Mountaineer is located, will decide the fate of table games in a June 30 referendum. The state legislature earlier this year passed a bill legalizing such games if the counties in which racetracks are located approve.

On June 9, voters in Ohio County approved the gambling expansion for Wheeling Island Racetrack & Gaming Center, a Greyhound track located about 45 minutes south of Mountaineer. That same day, however, voters in Jefferson County in the state’s Eastern Panhandle region rejected table games at Charles Town Races & Slots.

There are indications Hancock County voters will respond in a manner similar to their Ohio County counterparts. Both counties are located in a depressed region where jobs and economic development are major issues. The area surrounding Charles Town, on the other hand, is a growth area with an influx of residents who commute to nearby cities such as Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Also, the Mountaineer Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association supports the addition of table games at the track. The Charles Town HBPA was neutral on the issue in Jefferson County.

Under the legislation, horse and dog purses would earn 2.5% of gross revenue from table games, and breed development programs another 2%. Horsemen at Thoroughbred tracks in the state get 14%-15.5% of gross VLT revenue for purses and breed development.

In mid-June, Mountaineer officials released plans for an expanded hotel and other development at the property should table games pass. The track owns about 2 1/2 miles of unused property that fronts the Ohio River, something Arneault believes could be utilized to the facility’s advantage.

The expansion concept is nothing new. Last year, Arneault told The Blood-Horse he hoped to develop a “destination resort” with shops, residential units, and a new golf course. He also said 80% of the play at table games would come from the 50-and-under crowd; 80% of slots play comes from those 50 and over at Mountaineer.

“We’re looking to have a product that’s attractive to a whole new demographic, and I think it would help racing,” Arneault said at the time.

Officials have said some table games could be placed in underutilized space in the Mountaineer grandstand. There is a belief those who play cards would be more likely to cross over and wager on horse races.

Should Hancock County approve the table games measure, there would be two West Virginia tracks on the Ohio border with full casino gambling. Ohio tracks have been unsuccessful in their bids to win approval for expanded gambling.

On Aug. 11, Kanawha County, W.Va., voters will go to the polls to decide the fate of table games at Tri-State Racetrack & Entertainment Center near Charleston. That facility, which offers Greyhound racing and video gaming, is located about 45 minutes from the Kentucky border.

As in Ohio, the Kentucky horse industry has failed to win approval for expanded gambling at tracks, though the issue figures prominently in this year’s gubernatorial election in the Bluegrass State. Democratic candidate Steve Beshear has made casino gambling a key part of his campaign platform; Republican Gov. Ernie on June 27 told the media he now opposes an effort to get a constitutional amendment on expanded gambling on the 2008 ballot.

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