Thoroughbreds return to live races at Charles Town
SHEPHERDSTOWN — It was mid-March and the world was beginning to see what the clutches of the coronavirus looked like from the inside.
Businesses closed. Hospitals were filled with COVID-19 victims. Like the rest of society both here and abroad, sporting events became a part of the rules being put in place to save lives.
The Charles Town Races had to curtail any further racing. The casino ceased operations. The restaurants, buffets and entertainment center at the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races went dark and could not take customers.
But the track’s racing surface remained open to trainers and owners who wanted to continue conditioning their thoroughbreds. The mandated social distancing rules applied and masks had to be worn, but the thoroughbreds could be trained, and possibly be ready to race whenever Gov. Jim Justice relaxed certain imposed rules and permitted racing to be jump-started.
The governor told us that racing could make its return from the sidelines on May 14 with nine-race programs to be used. There would be no patrons allowed on the grounds. The casino wouldn’t be dealing black jack, the buffet food businesses would not be forking out roast beef or chicken tenders, the Final Cut would remain closed as would the Skyline Terrace restaurant.
But the horsemen would be competing again for purse money and off-track wagering would be allowed.
Instead of the shallow fields that sometimes greeted would-be bettors or the seven- or eight-race evenings that prevailed just before the mid-March cutoff date for live races, there would be fields mostly filled with eight, nine or 10 thoroughbreds. And there would be nine races per night.
The larger-than-normal fields made for more competitive racing and the public seemed more than satisfied with the opportunities for larger payouts from so-called “exotic” wagering.
As soon as racing was reconnected with the public, Charles Town had a night where more than $4 million was the eye-opening wagering handle. That almost staggering figure was the fifth-highest handle in the history of the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races plant. Only four dates where the Grade II or Grade III races were held did the track do more wagering business.
There are still few thoroughbred tracks across the country that are open for off-track wagering.
The lavish Kentucky Derby won’t be run until Sept. 5, and the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore has now set Oct. 3 as its 2020 racing date. The third jewel of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes in New York, has not set its date as yet.
Charles Town has been found by those would-be thoroughbred bettors who want larger fields and more races on a given night. And the local horsemen and jockeys are now able to ply their trades after sitting on the sidelines and missing any job-generated wages while the coronavirus went along at 1-9 odds every day for about two months.