12/03/2003 12:00AM

Track celebrates 70-year anniversary

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Building a racetrack in a small West Virginia town during the Great Depression hardly seems like a sound business decision. Neither does the selection of Dec. 2 for opening day.

But Charles Town Races survived that first December in 1933 and, thanks to the introduction of slots six years ago, will mark its 70th anniversary this weekend.

The only way to provide heat for patrons during the track's first season was to place oil drums containing chunks of blazing coke throughout the open-air grandstand. The oil drums have long since disappeared, and now 3,500 slot machines help keep the action hot. A referendum permitting slot machines was passed in 1996. Daily purse distribution now exceeds $140,000, and fields average about nine horses - one short of the maximum allowed to run.

"No doubt about it. We'd have been dead if the slots didn't come here," said Gerald Barney Bast, a 74-year-old trainer who races all year at Charles Town. "But it's gotten terrible tough now for the local guys to win races. Big outfits will bring horses in and drop them down, and even if they've got a little something wrong with them, they're hard to beat."

Bast is just one of a group of racetrackers who have succumbed to the special charm of Charles Town, located about 65 miles west of Baltimore and 65 miles northwest of Washington in the tristate area of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland. Many of these people made their living at the track decades ago and chose to retire in the area. Webb Snyder and Patsy Grant, both of whom were jockeys in the 1930's, still call Charles Town home. So do Frank Smith and Bast, trainers whose ties to the track exceed 50 years. Their memories provide a living history of the track's colorful past.

"People who came there to race often stayed there," said Phil Grove, 56, who spent 13 of his 29 years as a jockey riding at Charles Town and neighboring Shenandoah Downs. He rode the 3,500th winner of his career at Charles Town in 1992, and had 3,991 winners in a career that ended in 1997.

Grove was raised in Frederick, Md., about 20 miles from Charles Town. "A lot of us grew up together," said Grove, now a steward in Maryland. "We liked each other and respected each other. We were more like a family."

Snyder, who will turn 91 in January, is one of the few living links to opening day. He was an apprentice jockey in 1933 and barely missed riding on the inaugural card.

"I was coming from Rockingham Park and hit snow on the way," recalled Snyder, who rode until 1952 and then spent 14 years as an outrider at Charles Town. "There was a rule that the jockeys had to be in the jockeys' room by noon, and I think I got there around 1:30 p.m."

What Snyder saw was a big crowd and a racetrack that hardly was ready for use. "They were still hauling in dirt to put on the track, and it wasn't the kind of sand that they have today," Snyder said. "It was red clay and it was real deep. The horses would sink in five or six inches in some places."

The clay was especially treacherous when it froze and then thawed, according to Snyder. He said that one of the horses he rode lost three shoes in one race, thanks to the clay muck.

"There were also a lot of holes on the track," he added. "We'd hit the holes and the horses would fall, and so would the jockeys. Sometimes, a jockey would fall twice in the same day."

Snyder's memory is sharp enough to recall the names of horses he rode during that first 20-day meet, in which the average daily purse distribution was $2,930.

He remembers riding horses for Guy Bedwell, best known as the trainer of Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner in 1919. Snyder won with a 6-year-old mare named Vacillate in a five-furlong handicap early in the meet, missed by a nose with Fair Billy going 1 1/16 miles a few days later, and won the last race of the inaugural meet with a third Bedwell horse, Manager Bill.

Patsy Grant, 83, rode at Charles Town from 1936 to 1959, then spent 17 years as a trainer and six more as a steward. He still goes to the track almost every night. "I buy my tickets for the night, watch the first two races, and then I go home," he said.

Grant remembers when jockeys like himself were paid $5 a ride, with an extra $15 if they won. It was, Grant acknowledged, a tough way to make a living. In what was perhaps his best year, 1943, Grant won 117 races. "I made $6,600," he said.

Grant recalled riding on the undercard of the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race in 1938 at nearby Pimlico and sharing the same valet that day as Seabiscuit's substitute rider, George Woolf. Did Woolf say anything about how he intended to ride Seabiscuit?

"George Woolf didn't say much of anything to me or to anybody else," Grant said. "That's why they called him the Ice Man."

Purses were still low and the horses mostly cheap when Frank Smith came to Charles Town as a trainer in 1946. "I think $1,200 was the bottom claiming price, and they ran for a purse of about $1,200," said Smith, 81, who still has one horse in training. "You had to scuffle to survive, but people worked hard. And we raced in almost any conditions. We raced when there were frozen clods on the track and I saw snow piled four and a half feet high. They just scraped it to the outside fence and we kept on racing."

For many years, Charles Town was the only track on the East Coast to stay open during the winter. "They'd run special buses from New York, and on Sundays, 50 or 60 buses of fans would come here," said Costy Caras, who has worked at Charles Town since 1962, spending 36 years as the track announcer and most recently making the morning line for the program.

Charles Town nearly vanished in the 1990's. "We were down to $22,000 in purses a day and paying $800 to the winner of a race," said Ann Hilton, an owner and trainer at Charles Town since 1959. Her father, James Bell, ran a horse, Electric Gaff, on the opening-day card in 1933 for a purse of $400.

"Some horsemen left or went out of business," Hilton said. "People like me stayed because it was in our blood."

* To commemorate Charles Town's 70th anniversary, the $70,000 St. Nick Stakes for 2-year-olds will be run Saturday night. There will also be special 70th anniversary souvenir glasses, T-shirts, and programs with a collage of vintage photos available Friday through Sunday.

Clocking in at Charles Town

1933: Charles Town Race Track opens on Dec. 2, operating under the Shenandoah Valley Jockey Club. The six-furlong track, owned by Albert J. Boyle, cost $160,000 to build. Not enough money remained to pay for the removal of a 40-foot rock pile in the infield, which remained there for years. Rounding the clubhouse turn, horses and riders would vanish for several seconds, then reappear, often in a much different order as jockeys tried to capitalize on the blind spot by committing fouls that couldn't be seen by the stewards.

1934: The first full season of racing features 36 days from May 28 to July 7 and 17 days from Dec. 6 to Dec. 25. Total purses - $106,500.

1943: Total purses for 66 days of racing is $213,400, an average of $3,233 daily. The average purse is $400. The grandstand can hold 2,500 people, the clubhouse 200. There are stables for 700 horses.

1947: Hall of Fame trainer Sonny Hine stables horses at Charles Town for the first time.

1952: Apprentice rider Bill Hartack leads the 19-day winter meet with 24 winners. Hartack would go on to win 4,272 races in a Hall of Fame career, including the Kentucky Derby five times.

1955: Robert Hilton begins training at Charles Town. Hilton would become the track's all-time leading trainer with more than 2,500 winners before his death in 1998.

1959: Shenandoah Downs, intended as a track for Standardbreds, opens just north of Charles Town. After a legal battle, Shenandoah is permitted to race Thoroughbreds and becomes the country's first track to have night racing.

1960: On April 27, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, attend a Democratic rally at Charles Town.

1961: The so-called "Charles Town course," six furlongs plus 120 feet, is used for the last time.

1965: Lights are installed, producing a record crowd of 13,633 on July 5. Jesse Davidson, riding in Maryland during the day and at Charles Town at night, leads the nation's jockeys in wins with 319 from 1,582 mounts.

1969: On Feb. 22, Barbara Jo Rubin, 19, becomes the first female jockey to win a parimutuel race in the United States when she guides Cohesian to victory.

1972: Charles Town is sold to Shenandoah Corp., which also owns Shenandoah Downs.

1976: Shenandoah Downs closes and becomes a training track. Year-round racing becomes a fixture at Charles Town.

1978: The Kenton Corp. buys Charles Town and Shenandoah.

1979: Sunday racing begins at Charles Town.

1981: On Sept. 16, a closed-circuit telecast of the boxing match between Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard helps lure a record crowd of 21,480.

1987: The West Virginia Breeders Classics, a concept developed by Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff to showcase top statebred horses, is launched. Onion Juice wins the inaugural Classic, the state's first $100,000 race.

1994: The track struggles, with average purses of $3,134 in its winter meet and $3,778 in spring-summer.

1996: On Nov. 5, Jefferson County voters approve a referendum permitting the installation of video lottery terminals (slots). Two months later, Penn National Gaming Inc. buys the track.

1997: On Sept. 10, the Silver Screen Gaming Center, containing 220 slot machines, opens.

1998: Longshots, a multimillion-dollar simulcast center, opens in January.