12/31/2013 12:29PM

Dick Jerardi: Charles Town has evolved to remain hotter than ever


When Albert Boyle spent $160,000 in the middle of the Great Depression to build a racetrack in Charles Town, W.Va., that would open in December 1933 becoming America’s first winter race meet not run somewhere warm, he could not have possibly envisioned what the facility would look like 80 years later.

The owner bet that northern fans, starved for gambling action during the winter months, would respond. They did. Trains came from Baltimore, and fans came from everywhere.

Bill Hartack won the Kentucky Derby five times, but he began his career at Charles Town in 1952, winning 24 races during the 19-day meet. He finished with 4,272 wins and a place in the Hall of Fame.

On April 27, 1960, John F. Kennedy spoke at the track while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In 1969 at Charles Town, 19-year-old Barbara Jo Rubin became the first female jockey to win a parimutuel race in the United States. Forty years later, she was inducted into the track’s Hall of Fame.

In 1987, Sam Huff and Carol Holden began the West Virginia Breeders’ Classics, modeled after the Breeders’ Cup.

Still, by the mid-1990s, it really looked like the track might not survive. The gambling world had changed, and Charles Town really had not.

Voters approved video lottery machines in 1996, and Penn National Gaming bought the facility in 1997.

As we hit 2014, Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races has 5,000 slot machines, 5,000 parking spaces, table games, a poker room, a terrific race for older horses each spring, the Charles Town Classic (first run in 2009 and now a Grade 2 worth $1.5 million), and, coming this year, a second graded race, the Charles Town Oaks, which just got a Grade 3 designation.

The facility would not be recognizable – or even imaginable – to the original owner. The Washington suburbs have expanded out toward Charles Town. Baltimore is an easy drive on roads that had not been contemplated in 1933. What seemed like an isolated location when it opened no longer is isolated at all.

It is Charles Town, running all year now, definitely not closing in the winter and really hotter than it has ever been.

Each of the track’s three 2013 event days – Charles Town Classic Day in April, the Race for the Ribbon in September, and the West Virginia Breeders’ Classics in October – attracted record wagering for the day. The Charles Town Classic card got $4.3 million in bets, the Race for the Ribbon $2.2 million, and West Virginia Classic XXVII took in $1.5 million.

Training titles at Parx and Penn

The Parx Racing and Penn National training titles are decided over the entire year, so consistency is definitely rewarded.

Patricia Farro got a clean sweep at Parx, with the most wins and most money. In fact, she just finished the best year of her career for the second straight year.

She had 103 wins last year and has 116 wins this year. She got clear in the final month of the Parx season with 85 wins and earnings of more than $2.6 million. All told, her horses won $3.4 million this year, which is better than the $2.7 million she had last year and the $2.3 million she had the year before that.

John Locke edged out Tim Kreiser for the most wins this year at Penn National. Locke was 90 for 571 (16 percent) this year, while Kreiser went 86 for 306 (28 percent). Kreiser’s horses won the most money at Penn, $1.8 million. Overall, Kreiser had the best year of his career, with 116 wins from 426 starts and earnings of $2.8 million. He beat his previous best year by more than 30 wins.

McMahon well clear at Laurel fall meet

Trainer Hugh McMahon is closing on $4 million in earnings for the year overall. He is 27 for 138 at Laurel Park’s fall meet to lead the standings. In the past two years combined, his horses have won more than 300 races and earned nearly $7 million.