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At age 81, she’s no dowager

By Staff | Dec 26, 2014

In her infancy, she belched acrid black smoke from 55-gallon oil drums in the grandstand.

Operating in the dead of winter made her the only one of her kind for years.

She was born during The Great Depression when jobs were scarce and opening a business was problem-filled and done while holding one’s breath.

After a hurried round of finishing touches, she had a red clay surface and an open-air seating area for the opening day’s patrons in early December of 1933.

The two brief racing meetings in 1934 — one in the summer and one near Christmas — gave her a validity that seemed to say, “We are going to make it.”

Bill Hartack was an apprentice rider in 1952 when he led the short, winter meet with 19 of his 4,272 lifetime winners.

By 1959 she seemed shoved into the background of scorned shadows when the much-publicized Shenandoah Downs opened its fountain-fronted gates to night racing just across the road from its getting-dingy doors.

But then in 1965 along came her own outdoor lighting system and just after Independence Day she drew a crowd of 13,633 to see what they might win at her mutuel windows.

Sold to new ownership by 1972, she somehow outlasts the smaller Shenandoah Downs and watches nearby as that track shutters its doors, sends the water cascading from its fountains no more and is left as only a neighboring training track in 1976.

Another sale takes place two years later . . . and then Sunday racing becomes another attraction as she reaches 45 years of age.

Soon, it’s more than just her staple thoroughbred racing that helps draw the thousands to her side. Concerts are brought trackside. World-class boxing matches, including a Thomas “The Hit Man” Hearns vs. “Sugar Ray” Leonard closed-circuit showing are featured and a massive crowd of 21,480 bursts her seams and scatters all across her grounds.

Then in 1987 the West Virginia Breeders Classics, a dream come true for planners Sam Huff and Carol Holden, is a full night of racing for the first time.

It isn’t too long before hard times and lowered purses threaten her very existence. Crowds are sparse on the best nights. Trainers and owners desert her stables . . . and the vultures are circling overhead, seemingly just waiting for her collapse and death rattle.

But the Jefferson County voters turn out and approve a plan that will bring slot machines to her now-dusty inner rooms.

She is sold to Penn National Gaming. Slot machines bring back the people from places like Northern Virginia, suburban Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, areas that once spouted thousands of patrons that rode trains and buses to bet on her thoroughbreds.

After being first introduced in 1996, the number of slot machines continues an upward spiral as time moves along and other creature amenities are added to her appeal. Restaurants, theaters, table games and featured singers and groups only give her added lustre and allure for the fun-seekers.

By the late 1990’s there is Longshots in place and simulcast racing from all across the country can be wagered on and enjoyed from a table location.

She turned a vibrant 70 years young in 2003.

And with additional, world-class races like the Grade II Charles Town Classic and Run for the Ribbon Night she has just celebrated her 81st birthday.

Now known as Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races (a long name even for an octogenarian), she is ready to meet the 2015 racing year with another fullblown schedule of stakes races as well as the same show business personalities, Final Cut steaks and table games that have been in place for years.

Now the inner Hollywood motif differs greatly from the barrels belching their smoke and the starting gate being pulled along by draft horses, and she is a spritely 81 to prove her staying power.