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It’s gaming at the wire!

By Jack Coady, courtesy Coady Photography

It began quietly enough in 1994 when video lottery terminals were introduced at Mountaineer Race Track, a thoroughbred track in Chester, W.Va. That was soon followed by reel-spinning slot machines at horse and greyhound tracks in Iowa, and the age of the racetrack casino — or “racino” — was under way.

Today, there are nearly 50 racinos in 14 states, with Ohio set to join the list next year. And the racinos have evolved from tracks with live racing and only slot machines into full-blown resorts with a full range of gambling options and amenities.

The American Gaming Association, in its 2011 State of the State report, recognized the new reality of racinos by including them with land-based and riverboat casinos as “commercial casinos” instead of breaking their information out separately in most states as in previous years.

“The decision to no longer detail information on racetrack casinos’ operations separately from land-based or riverboat casinos was in large part prompted by how the racetrack casino segment of the industry has evolved,” the report said.

The report noted that in several states, such as Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, racetrack casinos that once could only offer slot machines can now also offer table games.

“In many cases, racetrack casino properties are now diversified resorts,” it said.

For example, Mountaineer Race Track, now the Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort, offers more than 50 table games, including blackjack, three-card poker and roulette, and has a six-story resort hotel, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, several restaurants, a spa and a golf course.

With attendance and betting at racetracks declining, one of the appeals of adding a casino has been to bolster the tracks’ purses, thus attracting better horses and, it is hoped, more fans and bettors

Mountaineer has gone from being a run-down facility that raced mainly claimers to a track that holds the Grade II West Virginia Derby the first Saturday in August.

MTR Gaming, which owns Mountaineer, opened a new thoroughbred track and casino, Presque Isle Downs, near Erie, Pa., in 2007 when Pennsylvania legalized casinos, and it is expected to seek slots at its harness track, Scioto Downs near Columbus, Ohio, next year when racinos are permitted in the Buckeye State for the first time.

In September, officials with Hialeah Park in Miami announced plans for a new $150 million casino with 1,250 slot machines and a 30-table poker room that is scheduled to open next November.

The addition of new or expanded racinos in Chester, Pa., and Bensalem, Pa., pushed the Philadelphia market to the top of the racetrack casino market in 2010 with $759.1 million in revenue.

The remaining top 10 racetrack casino markets in 2010, in order, were Yonkers, N.Y.; Indianapolis; Charles Town, W.Va.; Providence, R.I.; Dover and Harrington, Del.; Dade County, Fla.; Grantville, Pa.; Meadow Lands, Pa.; and Wilkes-Barre, Pa.