Thistledown's future unclear as first video lottery terminal license issued to Columbus horse track

NORTH RANDALL, Ohio - The track condition for Wednesday afternoon's first race at Thistledown was listed as "fast" but the plans for the North Randall facility's future appear on a pace that is anything but, at least publicly.

Just days after the Ohio Lottery awarded Scioto Downs in Columbus the state's first video lottery terminal (VLT) license, most of the state's seven tracks have either announced plans or their intentions.

Penn National will be paying the state a total of $150 million to be allowed to move its two tracks from Toledo and Columbus, to Dayton and Youngstown respectively. Northfield Park last month unveiled its plan to partner with Hard Rock Entertainment for a $275 million gaming and entertainment center, and Scioto Downs will open its doors next month on its $125 million racino that will feature 1,800 video lottery terminals to start.

Thistledown was purchased two years ago by Caesars Entertainment, but as you walk around the sprawling property that once drew nearly a million people a year, you will find no reference to the world's largest gaming corporation. The exceptions, of course, being the billboards touting the now open Horseshoe Casino Cleveland that now grace the tracks infield.

It wasn't long after the July 2010 purchase of Thistledown that Caesars entered into a partnership with Dan Gilbert's Rock Gaming to operate his Cleveland and Cincinnati casinos, a union that also gave Rock Gaming the option of buying into Thistledown.

From that point it appeared the track would likely be moved to avoid competition with the Horseshoe and eventually the Phase II casino, in much the same way Penn National moved its tracks in Columbus and Toledo away from its two casinos.

That agreement with the state reached in March to allow tracks to move though specifically mentions "the potential relocation of Thistledown to the Akron area."

While Rock Ohio Caesars has confirmed that they are looking at sites in the Akron–Canton area they said they have not ruled out staying in North Randall.

If that were the case though, it's likely that Caesars would have already begun the process of investing the state required $150 million in upgrades to the property.

A walk around the track which opened its racing season May 4, finds that though clean, it is shopworn and showing its age. The stables, grounds and outlining fences are in need of substantial work, work that likely would have been started if the track was staying.

Its departure if it comes to be, would leave yet another massive hole in the area around Randall Park Mall that once was the shopping envy of the nation, but is now a shadow of its former self.

On this sunny Wednesday afternoon the several hundred people that made up the crowd weren't focused on the track's future, their focus was on the next race, neither of which they could predict or control.

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