03/05/2010 1:00AM

Penn National close to acquiring Beulah Park


Beulah Park in Columbus, Ohio, and Penn National Gaming Inc. are in the final stages of negotiations in a deal that would transfer the track to Penn National and settle a lawsuit filed by Beulah against the company, according to multiple racing officials with knowledge of the discussions.

If the deal is completed, Penn National would acquire a racetrack in the same city in which it plans to build a $400 million casino by 2012. The deal would also allow Penn National to avoid thorny questions about its involvement in lobbying for and against expanded-gambling measures in Ohio by dismissing a lawsuit Beulah filed against the company in 2009. The lawsuit alleged that Penn National breached a contract with Beulah by opposing slot-machines at racetracks and supporting an effort to get a measure on the 2009 ballot asking voters to approve four casinos, two of which would be owned by Penn.

Officials with knowledge of the discussions emphasized that the deal had reached a critical stage on Thursday night but had not been completed.

Charles Ruma, the owner of Beulah Park, declined to comment on Friday. A spokesman for Penn National, Eric Schippers, said the company does not comment "on new business opportunities we may be pursuing."

Penn National is a publicly-owned company with racing and casino operations in 15 states, including racetrack-casinos in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New Mexico.

Beulah is one of three Thoroughbred tracks in Ohio. All three have struggled for a decade, but hopes for the tracks were briefly rekindled in the summer of 2009 when Gov. Ted Strickland, as part of a budget maneuver, authorized 2,000 slot machines at each of the tracks and at four harness tracks. The plan was immediately challenged by several organizations in multiple lawsuits, and, within months, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the measure could not be implemented unless opponents were given an opportunity to collect signatures for a 2010 public referendum.

In the meantime, a coalition supported by Penn National collected enough signatures to get a separate measure on the November ballot authorizing four casinos in the state. The measure passed, giving Penn National the right to operate casinos in Columbus and Toledo. Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA franchise and the online mortgage lender Quicken Loans, received the right to open casinos in Cincinnati and Cleveland.

Beulah filed the lawsuit against Penn National on Sept. 15, prior to the casino measure passing. The lawsuit alleged that Beulah and Penn had reached an agreement in 2006 to lobby for slot machines at racetracks, but that Penn breached that contract in 2009 by lobbying against any measure supporting slots at racetracks at the same time it pushed for the ballot measure authorizing the standalone casinos.