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Racino Saves Scioto Downs' Harness Racing

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Harness racing season at Scioto Downs officially kicks off this afternoon.  Just five years ago, the track was struggling to stay afloat. As attendance fell, prize money dried up and owners were taking their horses to “greener” pastures.  Then so-called “racinos” came along and brought with them a horseracing revival. 

Horses train on the track at Scioto Downs year ‘round.  On a brisk morning not long ago, a horse and driver pass the empty grandstands.

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Just a few years ago, the massive Scioto Downs parking lot was almost as desolate.  Now harness racing fans will have to vie for parking spaces out front.  That’s because the track’s adjoining “racino” – which opened in 2012 – is an increasingly popular gambling destination.

“This is what we consider the VLT gaming facility.” 

Scioto Downs’ PR manager is Ashley Redmon.

“This is the over 150,000-square-foot gaming facility that houses over 2,100 video lottery terminals or VLTs,” Redmon.

VLTs are electronic slot machines.  Many have spinning cylinder displays that mimic their Las Vegas counterparts.  The Scioto Downs racino was Ohio’s first.  Now there are seven across the state.  Ironically, they’re credited with saving Ohio horseracing. They’re doing it, says Scioto Down’s racing general manager Stacy Cahill, by pulling people back to the track.

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“The lack of people actually here was part of the problem.  You know you need people here to by the beer and the sodas and not just wager,” Cahill says.

Attendance dropped as more and more people went on-line to wager.  Other attractions grabbed would-be gamblers. 

“You know there’s so many things to do here in Columbus, it’s a hard sell every night of the week.  Before we had a soccer team, before we had a hockey team you know before we had all these things, back when it was just Scioto Downs and the Buckeyes.  There wasn’t a ton of stuff to do.  Now there’s a festival every weekend in the summer and almost something for everybody here,” Cahill says.

By 2010, things looked bleak.  Attendance – and wagering – had plummeted.  Prize money for horsemen, known as purses, was $2.3 million; down from $6 million in 2004.  Owners were leaving Ohio to race in Pennsylvania and Indiana.  There was talk that Scioto Downs might go out of business. 

Enter racinos. 

“After legislation passed and we got legalized VLT’s – video lottery terminals – then as the purses grew, for the horses that they race for, so did the crowds again,” Cahill says.

A percentage of VLT profits goes toward purses.  The money now is so good that Ohio is again competitive with its neighbors.  Purses last year amounted to $15.6 million dollars.

“Pennsylvania and Indiana race for about the same as we do now.  So the people that were leaving to go to Pennsylvania and Indiana, they don’t have to do that anymore.  The percentage that the horsemen purses, that they race for, that they receive from the VLT games has made the purses quadruple.  So with that the horsemen don’t have to go to other states to race because we race for just as much money here.

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Today there’s a new free-standing restaurant on the premises in addition to the racino’s eating venues and a four-story hotel is under construction.  Stacy Cahill says she’s proud of the turn-around.

“We have the new Brew Brothers restaurant that just opened up. a microbrewery with live entertainment every night.    And then we have the hotel going up.  We’ve got the track and the racino.  So yeah, it’s a lot more than what used to be out here.”

Racing at Scioto Downs begins today at 2 p.m.