Horse racing has been conducted in Charles Town, W. Va., since 1933, but it wasn't until 2012 that the track – now known as Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races – hit the $1-million mark for daily average pari-mutuel handle.
It wasn't by accident that it happened.
A combination of factors – finding the right slot in a busy simulcast environment, using casino revenue to build the track's brand through a nationally recognized stakes program, and reducing takeout on certain wagers – is responsible for Charles Town completing its best year ever from a pari-mutuel wagering standpoint. The track established a number of all-time wagering records for the 2012 racing season and hit a bunch of milestones on individual racing programs or wagering pools.
Charles Town has run against the grain of national pari-mutuel wagering trends, which show declines in five of the last six years (the only increase being in 2012, when total U.S. handle increased by less than 1%). From 2009 to 2012, while total U.S. pari-mutuel betting on horse racing dropped by 12%, wagering on Charles Town races has increased by 27%.
Erich Zimny, vice president of racing operations for the Penn National Gaming-owned track, came to Charles Town midway through the 2008 season after getting his master's degree from the Racetrack Industry Program at the University of Arizona. A graduate of Georgetown University in 1998, Zimny previously had worked as a racing official at Suffolk Downs, then practiced law for several years in New York before returning to the racing industry.
Since Zimny's arrival, Charles Town has made several moves that have given the track a higher national profile with horsemen and horseplayers.
First, the Charles Town Classic for older horses was established in 2009, and in 2011 it became the track's first graded stakes when the American Graded Stakes Committee gave it a Grade 3 designation. It was moved up to Grade 2 status one year later after the 2011 event became the first non-Breeders' Cup race since the 2006 Arlington Million to have a field of 10 or more where all the starters had previously won graded stakes. For 2013, the Classic's purse has been increased from $1 million to $1.5 million, with a million dollars going to the winner. The Classic has attracted horses from trainers like Eclipse Award-winning Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert, who probably couldn't have found Charles Town on a map just a few years earlier.
“It's had a huge impact,” Zimny said of the Classic. “It's really hard for me to overstate how important it is. We can use a day like this and brand the entire year.”
Zimny has something he calls the “mom test” to gauge whether a sporting event cuts through to the mainstream consciousness. “If my Mom knows about a sporting event, it's relevant. If she knows about Churchill Downs it's because of the Derby. We're not that big, but if someone like my Mom knows about Charles Town it's because of the Classic. It's one of the richest races in the country and has brought in stellar fields.”
When nationally prominent owners or trainers come to Charles Town for the Classic or one of the other stakes on that lucrative night, Zimny said track management gives them what he calls the “white glove” treatment. “We do all we can, knowing it may be their first time here,” he said.
Last year, when the Mike Repole-owned, Todd Pletcher-trained Caixa Eletronica won the April 14 Classic, new Charles Town records were established for handle on a single program ($3,441,631) and single race ($1,006,789). It led to the best wagering month in the track's history.
Finding a spot on the calendar for the Classic where there was not a great deal of competition with other races in attracting top older horses was important, said Zimny. So is putting Charles Town's simulcast signal in a spot where it has a chance to generate the highest handle.
“Twenty years ago, your pool of customers was whoever was willing to drive to your racetrack,” Zimny said. “Today, you've got compete with your simulcast signal not only with other tracks, but with other content on the television or Internet. Finding your sweet spot is a big deal.”
The sweet spot for Charles Town included moving from Sundays to Tuesday nights for much of the year, when there are very few racing signals available. “Wednesday nights have been good, too,” Zimny said. This past Wednesday night, Charles Town had its highest handle ever for a January card. “The simulcast market is pretty lean in general during the winter months,” he added.
Charles Town will revert to Sunday afternoon programs from May through August, when the weather is better, in hopes of boosting on-track business. Charles Town is required by law to race at least 200 days a year, and a contract with the West Virginia Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association calls for 235 days of live racing each year. Parking and admission to the track is free.
Zimny said a decision by track management to reduce takeout on certain wagers has had a positive impact, but how big an impact isn't yet clear. On Sept. 17, 2011, takeout was reduced from 25% to 22% on trifectas, superfectas, Pick 3 and Pick 4 wagers. Win, place, and show takeout remained at 17.25%, with exactas and daily doubles at 19%.
Year-over-year comparisons (Sept. 17, 2011-Sept. 16, 2012, vs. Sept. 17, 2010-Sept. 16, 2011) show that trifecta wagers increased by an average of 4.1%; superfectas by 13.9%; Pick 3 bets by 26.2%; and Pick 4 bets by 55.3%.
In all four wagering categories where takeout was reduced, the largest increases came on Tuesday nights, when overall handle grew the fastest.
“We made a calculated decision,” Zimny said of the 12% reduction in the cost of making those reduced-takeout bets. “We went through a bunch of iterations and arrived at that number. We've evaluated the data, and (further reductions) is not something we would preclude in the future. But it's hard to figure how much the gains in wagering came from lower takeout versus the schedule change.”
Zimny said the move initially was widely applauded, but “after 16 months we don't hear much about it” from horseplayers.
“We are going to evaluate this a little longer,” he said. “There are a lot of moving parts to see what's changed in our program. We want to try to isolate the handle and make a more informed decision.”
So far, just about every decision made at Charles Town over the last few years has led to a positive result. And that's good news for horsemen and horseplayers.
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