NORTH RANDALL, Ohio - Friday will mark the start a new era at Thistledown Racino, for the first time an Ohio thoroughbred track will offer live racing and slot machines.
In addition, it will be one of the first in the country to offer customers the chance to watch live racing while actually gambling on the video lottery terminals outdoors.
Crews were busy Thursday working to complete the bar and outdoor gambling area, which is located immediately next to the track's winner's circle and just outside the doors of the racino's "Slush" bar.
The area will also allow smoking since it is open air, providing gamblers with the only opportunity to gamble while smoking in Ohio.
The VLT impact will be immediately evident when the 122-day live racing season kicks off Friday at 12:55 p.m.
"We've already almost doubled the purses here at Thistledown without racing one time this year," said longtime track TV analyst and track handicapper Richard Ruda.
"The impact it's going to have on our racing product is absolutely immense," said new track announcer Craig Braddick. "We're getting better quality horses then we've had in a very long time, horses that have been racing at the top tracks in the country over the winter."
"We have really large size fields for the opening two days of the meet, we're still waiting for Sunday's entries but they're going to be large as well. Competitive racing has returned with a vengeance to northeastern Ohio," he said.
For now, though, not many beyond northeast Ohio will see those races. The track is still in negotiations with the Ohio Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association on purse subsidies. Ohio law requires the tracks set aside 9 to 11 percent of VLT revenue for increased purses.
The Ohio HBPA made an offer to Rock Ohio Caesars in May of 2012 the response they got came in February of 2013 and it was for lower than the 9 percent required by statute.
"We don't take that as a serious offer," said Ohio HBPA Executive Director Dave Basler.
Without a deal, the association is holding back on authorizing Thistledown to distribute its television signal. "Under the Interstate Horse Racing Act they need horsemen's approval to send their signal outside the state of Ohio," said Basler.
So out of the more than 700 outlets they distribute Thistledown's television signal to for simulcasting on a daily basis the HBPA will only authorize two to receive it because of a preexisting contract, until a deal is reached.
"I am hopeful that we'll be able to reach a resolution at this point I wouldn't say that I'm optimistic that it will be reached quickly.
"The loss of simulcast revenue obviously impacts Thistledown and the horsemen," said Basler. "
It also impacts what track announcer Braddick sees as the potential to grow the Thistledown name.
"Not only are we shown on TV at tracks around the country, we're now shown internationally as well," Braddick said.
"People in the United Kingdom and Australia are beginning to notice our product and as the product gets better as the season goes on we'll just continue to get a fan base that will be developing and become larger and larger," he said.
That's something Ruda hopes will bring back the track's golden days.
"A good 15 to 20 years ago you would come to Thistledown and couldn't get a seat in our spacious grandstand, and we hold about 6,000 people. On the weekends you couldn't find a seat," said Ruda. "We're hoping that comes right back."