05/06/2014 1:50PM

Belterra rings in new era in Ohio


Ohio’s newest racetrack opens for business Thursday on the picturesque grounds where one of its oldest racetracks used to sit.

The track is Belterra Park, an entirely new facility in Cincinnati nestled in the rolling wooded hills adjacent to the Ohio River where one of racing’s most charming tracks, River Downs, had held race meets since 1925. The new owner of the track, casino giant Pinnacle Gaming Inc., tore down the track in 2013 to make way for a sprawling casino and racetrack – part of a dramatic reshaping of the Ohio racing landscape in the wake of the state government’s decision to allow track owners to operate slot machines – and it has renamed the facility with one of its casino brands, Belterra.

The two signature cupolas that were once perched atop the track’s old grandstand remain but have been relocated to now sit on concrete plinths on each side of a new infield tote board. Little else will be familiar to veterans of the old, open-air wooden grandstand, other than the surrounding landscape, which was always one of the little track’s most notable charms. Expect less quiet, though, and bigger crowds – the facility now has 1,500 blaring, jangling slot machines in it.

“I’m excited about [the new facility],” said Dave Basler, the executive director of the Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which worked with Pinnacle on the design of the track. “It’s an integrated facility, and that’s something you can’t say about a lot of tracks that have added [slot machines] or casino games.”

Though the facility welcomed racing fans last Saturday for a Kentucky Derby simulcast party and the requisite hat contest, the first day of live racing is Thursday, the first of 100 planned race dates at the track, running on a Thursday-Sunday schedule through October. Sixty-three horses, including also-eligibles, have been entered for the eight-race card, which kicks off at 1:30 p.m. Eastern.

The opening-day feature is the $50,000 Tall Stack Stakes for Ohio-breds going 6 1/2 furlongs on the one-mile main track. The winner gets $30,000 and, more than likely, a mention on the track’s Wikipedia page.

The opening-day card will be the first live race day held at the track since late 2012. Pinnacle transferred its race dates in 2013 to Beulah Park near Columbus to accommodate its construction schedule.

As part of the reconstruction, the old River Downs grandstand and racetrack were relocated somewhat. The main track and the turf course also have slightly different layouts, though the main track remains one mile in circumference, and the turf course seven furlongs. The track will continue to be the only one in Ohio offering turf racing, though the course won’t be ready for racing until 2015.

Under Ohio law, horsemen will receive a generous subsidy from the track’s slot machines, which has encouraged some to dream that Ohio’s historic racing industry will be reinvigorated beginning this year. But any such renewal would have to take place in the midst of a wider industry stagnation, at a time when many racing officials are urging the country’s racetracks to make dramatic cuts in race dates to head off a drop in field size due to a significant contraction in the foal crop over the past five years.

No such dates contraction is set for Ohio. The three tracks will hold 300 live race dates in 2014, approximately the same number as in previous years, even as Ohio’s breeding industry collapsed and handle on the state’s races eroded. From 2002-12, purses at Ohio tracks fell from $30.5 million annually to $15.9 million, while the state’s foal crop dropped over the same time period from 640 to 216, according to figures from The Jockey Club.

Still, of the 1,040 stalls at the new track, many of them in 17 new barns, 75 percent to 80 percent are filled, and all of the stalls have been allocated, Basler said.

The casino part of the Belterra facility features a massive, well-lit gambling floor typical of most casino properties, complete with fancy dining options, a sports bar, and a food court. For hard-core racing fans, Pinnacle constructed a new theater-style indoor simulcast facility called the River Downs Club, with a view of the racetrack that pays homage to the old track, if in name only.

While the old fairgrounds-style grandstand seated several thousand people, the new outdoor section, complete with seat backs and capped with an architecturally pleasing canopy-style roof, will seat only 500. It’s not the old River Downs, but nothing old is ever new again.

“The grandstand is obviously smaller than it used to be, but it should provide some excitement with people closer to the action, and there are some very good sight lines,” Basler said.