04/11/2014 10:38AM

New Austintown, Ohio, track promises richer purses

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Brad Conrad
After Beulah Park closes May 3, its racing license will be transferred to the new Mahoning Valley Race Course, which is set to open Nov. 24.

GROVE CITY, Ohio – Unfortunate as it might be that Beulah Park is closing, there is life on the other side – the northeast side of Ohio, that is.

The racing license held by Beulah Park has been transferred by its owner, Penn National Gaming, to a new site in Austintown, a western suburb of Youngstown in the northeastern corner of the state. The new Thoroughbred racino, officially known as Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course, is part of a landscape dramatically altered since Ohio expanded its gambling laws through a 2009 referendum.

Racing will begin at Mahoning Valley on Nov. 24, with the new track coordinating its schedule with ThistleDown to form a year-round circuit, with the tracks running 100 days each.

A major reason for the move is that the Columbus metropolis is saturated with gambling. It now includes the standalone Hollywood Columbus casino, also owned by Penn National, and an independent Standardbred racino, Scioto Downs.

“From the perspective of the state and horsemen, the economics were much more compelling if a racetrack with a [video-lottery terminal] license could be moved to an underserved marketplace to generate greater revenues, versus the [crowded] situation in the Columbus market,” Chris McErlean, vice president of racing for Penn National, said in a recent interview.

“Our company did not take this decision lightly, given the impact on the racing and local community, but felt the move would ensure the long-term growth of the Thoroughbred industry in the state.”

The new Mahoning Valley track will cost Penn National – which owns and operates 26 gaming facilities (including 12 racetracks) in 20 different jurisdictions across North America – an estimated $250 million. That includes $125 million to build the new facility, a $50 million fee for the required VLT license, and a $75 million fee for relocating the existing racing license.

McErlean said construction on Mahoning Valley is progressing on schedule. The dirt-only track is a mile in circumference, and the backstretch can accommodate almost 1,000 horses. Purses with new slot-machine subsidies are expected to exceed $100,000 per day.

“We are building the track from the ground up, so it will be conducive to winter racing – or at least as much as a track can be for winter racing,” he said. “Unfortunately, the track at Beulah was never meant to be a winter track – it has a clay base and is extremely difficult to maintain.

“Starting from scratch is a big advantage. We think horsemen will like the new facilities, and horseplayers and guests will like our layout in the main building, which fully integrates racing and gaming.”

The new tracks at Mahoning Valley and Belterra Park, which opens for racing May 8 on the old River Downs property in Cincinnati, will help take Ohio racing into a new era, one of greater prosperity. All the same, McErlean said there is empathy for those upset about the demise of Beulah.

“Beulah Park has been such a part of the history of Grove City that the move is going to be difficult for many people – employees, horsemen, and customers alike,” McErlean said. “We fully understand and respect the ties to the community and the history of the site.”

Beulah is encouraging its employees to apply at Mahoning Valley and has opened the rehiring process for them at Hollywood Columbus.

“On the one hand, it’s sad leaving here,” said Beulah racing secretary Ed Vomacka, who will be moving to Austintown. “But on the other, it’s exciting to think what the slots can do for our racing program.”