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2020 Update

West Virginia which was the first state to license racinos, may be the first state to feel the impact of racino over saturation. Mountaineer Park, which now has competing racinos in key cities like Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Youngstown, Ohio and even instate Wheeling, has been hit the hardest. MTR Gaming which was once considered the gold standard for racino operations has had to merge with Nevada based Eldorado Holding. Mountaineer has also cut racing dates and purses in the past few years. Charles Town which is closer to Maryland, where casinos are not that threatening yet, seems to be holding it's own.    

Pari-Mutual wagering began in West Virginia in 1933, shortly after that the Charles Town Turf Club was opened in the town of the same name (not to be confused with Charlestown, the State Capitol) in the West Virginia panhandle near the Maryland and Virginia borders. Soon to follow in 1937, Wheeling Downs was opened on another small slice of West Virginia, between the Pennsylvania and Ohio borders. These would be the only tracks in operation till the nineteen fifties.

In 1951, about 50 miles north of Wheeling Downs, Waterford Park, opened in Chester, which was stuffed into the tiniest tip of the state at it's northern most border. Waterford Park, was and still is the only mile track in West Virginia, it is also the only one which has a turf course, and until there was an accident, had a landing strip in it's infield. The last track built in West Virginia, was Shenandoah Downs, it was located a stones throw from the Charles Town Turf Club in Charles Town, but at the time there was a reason for it. All the state's tracks continued racing into the seventies.

Wheeling Downs, which had abandoned thoroughbreds in favor of harness horses in the late sixties, was the first to discontinue horse racing in 1975. Today it is still in business as a dog track. In 1979 these obituaries appeared in a local paper.

Charles Town Turf Club, Born December 2,1933, Died January 3, 1979, age 45 years 1 month 1 day.

Shenandoah Downs, Born May 1,1959, Died January 3, 1979, Age 19 years 8 Months 2 Days.

Many in the community thought it to be a ploy to force Sunday Racing, but it was for sure the end of old "Shenny". On the other hand Charles Town re-opened on February 16nth with both Sunday Racing and Shenandoah's race dates.

While this was all going on Waterford Park at the other end of the state wasn't doing much better. The track with the lowest purses for a commercial venue on the east coast was also in trouble.

In 1987, Waterford Park changed hands and was renamed Mountaineer Park, somewhere along the way Mountaineer Management convinced the state to allow them to have Video Lottery Terminals for a trial period. The experiment proved a success, slot machines were legalized in West Virginia, both Mountaineer and Charles Town were saved. Both of these tracks known for 1,200 and 1,500 claimers, now have competitive purse structures, and Mountaineer Park has won awards for it's business model. 

A couple of notable jockeys come to mind when detailing West Virginia. The first is New England native Carl Gambardella who learned his trade on the Charles Town circuit before returning to ride in New England. "Gamby" went on to ride over 4,000 winners and have a couple of fist fights with jockette Dodie Duys. The next is Willie Clark the legendary West Virginia who was for a long time the oldest jockey to win a race, at the age of 69, also at 69 Clark received a 30 day suspension for pretty much cutting off a field at the start of a race at Charlestown. After his suspension he rode a few more times, then retired.

The most famous of all would be Jesse Davidson a raGs to riches back to raGs story. With not much more than a fifth grade education Davidson started his career on minor circuits on the east coast. He finally made his home base in Charles Town in 1965 riding by day in Maryland and night in West Virginia he won a national riding title. That title gained him a ticket to the big time in New York, where he became the regular rider on champion filly Shuvee, and guided her to Triple Tiara in 1968, the triple crown for filly's. In 1975 Davidson's career came to a halt when he was convicted of race fixing, and served four and a half months in prison plus a lifelong suspension from racing.

Davidson fought the suspension and after 10 years managed to get re-licensed in Maryland. In 1986 he got his last bucket wish list item when he rode lonGshot Southern Appeal to a 13th place finish in the Kentucky Derby. In 1988 Davidson suffered a career ending injury never returning to his past glory. Davidson passed away in 2010 at 69.  

2020 Update

Of the four tracks that existed in the state in 1966, three are in business. Wheeling Downs which gave up horse racing long ago, is one of the few places in the States that you can find dog racing. Efforts to ban the sport in West Virginia have failed and it looks like the hounds will circle the track a while longer. For horseplayers it means it's still standing and can be visited for nostalgia sake. Charles Town seems to be doing well under the Hollywood banner. While on the other hand Mountaineer Park and it's MTR casino empire, who were on top of the heap, when nobody else had casinos, is on it's second buyout. Mountaineer is now controlled by Century Casinos which also operate two racetracks in Western Canada.