ANDERSON TOWNSHIP, Ohio – A lot is riding on horse racing's return to the picturesque riverfront next to Coney Island and Riverbend where River Downs stood for 87 years.
A new era – and new hope for reviving the Ohio horse racing industry – begin at 1:30 p.m. Thursday when Belterra Park opens its first season of thoroughbred racing at its glitzy, new gambling and entertainment complex.
River Downs' charming wooden grandstand, topped by its signature cupolas, used to be filled with racing fans from spring to fall. Horsemen and jockeys stopped here along the Ohio thoroughbred circuit that included Beulah Park outside Columbus and ThistleDown outside Cleveland, as well as Latonia/Turfway in Florence, Ky.
A 16-year-old Steve Cauthen apprenticed at River Downs in 1976 and two years later became the youngest jockey to win the Triple Crown.
But after the fans started disappearing in the 80s and 90s, the mostly empty grandstand became faded and dilapidated, and horse racing in Ohio did, too, as horsemen left for greener purses.
Track owners and horsemen appealed to the state legislature to save them by permitting video gaming, and that's how "racinos" like Belterra Park came to be.
Pinnacle Entertainment of Las Vegas, which operates 15 casinos around the country, bought River Downs in 2012 and tore down the grandstand and everything with it. Belterra Park, which opened its gaming house May 1, is the fifth combination casino-race track in the state.
Miami Valley Gaming replaced Lebanon Raceway in December, and two more Ohio racinos are scheduled to open this year.
Horse racing will never regain all of its old glory in Ohio, but as gambling operators have taken over race tracks and converted them into racinos, there are signs of a rebirth, says Dave Basler, executive director of the Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
Breeding numbers are up and horsemen are returning, he says, enticed by a generous subsidy from slot machines, bigger purses and better tracks and accommodations.
"I believe it certainly reinvigorates the horse racing industry in the state and provides an opportunity to bring agriculture back and to bring horsemen back who had to leave the state to make a living," Basler said.
"We have to take advantage of it by breeding and racing here in Ohio and getting more fans involved and increasing pari-mutuel wagering."
Basler is especially enthusiastic about Belterra Park.
"It's a beautiful facility. They replaced everything from the ground up, and they did a good job of integrating the racing facility with the gaming facility," Basler said.
"In some places they are in different buildings, but (Belterra) put them side by side with an overlook from the gaming area for racing fans."
The canopy-covered grandstand seats 500, considerably fewer than RD's wooden grandstand (2,000), but there is room for three times that many standing trackside and on the overlooks.
And Belterra saved a few memories of River Downs.
Oldtimers will notice the cupolas were rescued from the wrecking ball and now stand at the ends of the tote board. Some historical photos are hung in the gaming building. And horse fans will see some familiar faces among the jockeys, including 60-year-old Perry Ouzts (6,219 wins, 18 River Downs titles) and Lori Wydick (closing in on 1,500 wins).
Sixty-three horses, including also-eligibles, are entered for Thursday's eight-race card. That's nearly a healthy average of eight horses per race.
ThistleDown, which added video gaming in 2013, is averaging 8.3 this year, up from 7.6 in 2013 and 6.6 in 2012, Basler said.
There are 17 new barns at Belterra Park with 1,040 stalls, and all of the stalls have been allocated, Basler said.
Purses at Belterra Park will average $80,000 per day "by agreement between the horsemen and Belterra," Basler said.
"I anticipate next year it will be more in the range of $100,000 to $110,000. That's consistent with what happened at ThistleDown," he said.
The special opening-day feature is the $50,000 Tall Stack Stakes for Ohio-breds going 6 1/2 furlongs on the 1-mile dirt track.
A turf track – the only one in Ohio - is scheduled to open in 2015.
Breeding has a long way to go to recover, if it ever does, but Basler is encouraged.
"The all-time high in Ohio-foaled horses was 1,185 in 1989. It dropped to 136 registered Ohio-foaled thoroughbreds in 2011," he said.
"But the horsemen knew (racinos) were coming, and it rose to 257 in 2013 – nearly double the previous year – and that number shows it is bouncing back.
"I anticipate in the next 5-6 years we'll be back to the 500 range."
Belterra Park plans 100 racing dates on a Thursday-Sunday schedule through October.
That's good news for horse racing fans after Turfway lost its September meeting. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission gave those dates to Churchill Downs last year, leaving only December for the Florence track.
Kentucky legislators continue to dig in their heels and refuse to allow gambling at race tracks. Ironically, that forced Churchill Downs, Inc., into the gambling business, and Churchill owns and operates the Miami Valley racino.
There is a lot at stake for Belterra, obviously, and Anderson Township, too. Trustees are hoping the new racino, at 6201 Kellogg Ave., adds a year-round entertainment and dining attraction to its summertime neighbors. Coney Island and Riverbend already draw one million visitors.
Excited township officials are expecting Belterra Park to draw hundreds of thousands more, contribute millions in tax revenue and drive new development at the I-275 exit along the Ohio River, 10 miles east of downtown.
The $300 million transformation from River Downs into Belterra Park includes 1,500 video slot games, simulcast betting and six restaurants, with a venue for live entertainment.
Representatives of the Ohio State Racing Commission and the Horsemen's Association and community officials will be participate in a brief ceremony Thursday to commemorate the first day of racing.
Cauthen will sign autographs.
Belterra Park will announce a $50,000 partnership donation to the Anderson Township Veterans Memorial Committee for the creation of a new veteran's memorial.