By Thomas Ott
Casino-style gambling is coming to the Thistledown thoroughbred track early next month, but how long it stays remains in question.
Northeast Ohio’s first racino will premiere April 9, with more than 1,100 video-lottery terminals, devices that look and function like slot machines. By next year, all seven of the state’s tracks are expected to have VLTs.
The $88 million racino is a boost for North Randall, a half-square-mile village anchored by the track and a mostly vacant shopping mall. It’s also the buzz among horse owners and trainers, who welcome casino gaming as an infusion of cash for the state’s struggling horse-racing industry.
Yet Thistledown’s future is uncertain: Gov. John Kasich has given the owner, Rock Ohio Caesars, the option of moving to the Akron-
Canton area. That would shift the track away from Rock’s Horseshoe Casino Cleveland downtown and nearby Northfield Park, which hopes to open a racino of its own by December.
A majority of the money invested in Thistledown went for the lottery terminals and other equipment that can be moved. The company could apply the expenditure to the $150 million the state requires for racino improvements. Under state law, Rock must decide no later than June 2014 whether the track stays or moves.
The Horseshoe and Thistledown can share turf, said Marcus Glover, a Cleveland-based vice president for Caesars Entertainment, the Las Vegas company that runs both properties.
Appearing last week before the Ohio Lottery Commission, the agency that regulates VLTs, he said the two venues will offer gamblers different attractions and promote each other via Caesars’ Total Rewards loyalty program.
“We will position these properties more to be complementary than to cannibalize each other,” Glover said.
The Lottery Commission did not ask how Thistledown would be affected by the project Northfield Park
is undertaking with Hard Rock International about six miles to the south. Plans call for 2,300 to 2,500 video-lottery terminals, a Hard Rock Cafe, a concert hall and maybe someday a hotel.
Another racino for Northeast Ohio in Austintown also is nearing final approval.
Horse trainers also are upbeat, fueling the heaviest demand for stall rental that the track has seen in years, said Rick Skinner, Thistledown’s general manager.
Tim Hamm, who trains thoroughbreds at his farm west of Youngstown, likes Thistledown’s track surface, which he and others consider one of the best in the country for traction and drainage. But Hamm said he thinks the track’s location won’t make a big difference to trainers.
“Half a dozen of one, six of the other,” he said. “We travel, we travel, we travel. Whether that place is in Cleveland or Akron, I don’t think horsemen have a preference one way or the other.”
What Hamm and others don’t want is for the racing side of the operation to get lost in the rush to attract slots enthusiasts.
The Ohio State Racing Commission, which licenses racetracks, recently expressed similar concerns about tracks that Penn
National Gaming wants to move so the future racinos will be farther from the company’s stand-alone casinos in Toledo and Columbus. A harness track in Toledo will head south to Dayton, and a thoroughbred track in Columbus will jump to Austintown.
The commission has held up the plans, saying Penn National offered only a fraction of the necessary seating and failed to include suitable clubhouse or dining space. Commission Chairman Robert Schmitz said in an interview that the smaller numbers of seats could lead to crowding and discourage people from going.