Charles Town to celebrate 90th anniversary

This Saturday night, one week after the track presented its final stakes race on the 2023 calendar, Charles Town Races will celebrate the 90th anniversary of its inaugural card of December 2, 1933. The eight-race card kicks off at 7:00 p.m.

It’s been quite a ride.

Charles Town not only emerged from the Great Depression in which it was launched but it would also later make the transition from daytime racing to nighttime racing when lights were installed. It would survive a brief closure in 1995 to enjoy a renaissance with the arrival of slot machines two years later.

And of course, it has also since survived a brief halt to the Covid-19 pandemic of early 2020. December 2 it will celebrate an improbable 90-year existence while numerous tracks across the land have since come and gone.

That’s not all. In 1969 Barbara Jo Rubin went to Charles Town and became the first female rider to win a parimutuel race. 1987 brought the first edition of the West Virginia Breeders Classics. And in 2010 the Charles Town Classic became the track’s first $1 million race; a year later, it would become the first graded stake contested at the track.

“Charles Town really has enjoyed a long history of racing and providing livelihoods for the people in the surrounding area,” said West Virginia Thoroughbred Breeders Association board member Mary Sell. “There are so many farms and so much open space in the surrounding area because of the race track. Not only do people directly involved in racing benefit from having the track, but so many other people who work in the casino or in businesses near the track depend on racing for their living.”

Likewise, trainer Cynthia McKee, whose late husband John McKee owned and operated Beau Ridge Farm, still home to 40 broodmares and six stallions, recalls how her parents relied on the track for their livelihood from the outset. Her father, Charles O’Bannon, began working at the track at age 14 in 1933, carrying water buckets to the horses that pulled the starting gate into position for each race. He would later become the track superintendent and held that position for over 40 years.

“My father was here when the track opened,” said McKee, who still has over 100 horses in training including recent stakes winners Direct the Cat and No Change. “He was only 14 when he started working at the track, but he was always around the track. My mother worked in the admissions when they used to charge people to come in. We would not have the farm if it were not for the track. John always wanted to do things to help the other horsemen. We have six stallions and we never raised the fee on any of them above $1,000, including Fiber Sonde, who really has been a blessing for us.”

Charles Town will offer an eight-race card this Saturday night, 90 years after its initial program got away at 1:00 p.m. and included seven races over a track rated “slow.” The opener, a maiden event for two-year-olds, went to Mint Mission; the purse was $400.

Each of the opening day winners — Mint Mission, Oral, Miss Morocco, Luck In, Light Breeze, Royal Lassie and The Doctor — will be honored by having a race named for them this Saturday night and other races will have sponsors including Southern States, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.


“So many people have depended on the track for their livelihood over the last 90 years,” said HBPA representative Maria Catignani. “There are still so many families who raced here decades ago who still race here today. Ann Hilton’s father, Jim Bell, saddled a horse on opening day. Her husband, Robert Hilton, won a lot of races here, and now her son-in-law David Walters is a trainer and has done really well. Other families like the Funkhousers and Caseys have done really well in racing and they continue to do well.”

David Walters, who has saddled over 1,500 winners in his career with earnings of over $15.6 million highlighted by victories in the West Virginia Cavada Breeders Classic from Carnival Chrome, Longfield Star and Cuppa Mocha Mojo, will send out Mud Bug in Saturday’s third race for $12,500 claimers, 90 years to the day that Bell saddled a horse on the opening card.

Trainer Tim Grams and wife Judy Grams, a former jockey at Charles Town, have enjoyed ample success over the years through their racing operation led by Grade 2 Charles Town Classic hero Runnin’toluvya and stakes winners Fancy Buckles and Moonlit Song. They are keenly aware of how much the track has impacted the lives of thousands of people in the area for nearly 100 years.

“If it were not for the track, Charles Town would be a ghost town,” Tim Grams said. “I remember when they shut down for five months back in 1995, and trainers from here like Ronney Brown and Jeff Runco left to go to Penn National. If the slots had not come, then the track would not be here and a lot of businesses in the area would not be here. Plus, you would have not two high schools here. This track has meant a lot to me and Judy, but there are hundreds of other people who rely on having it open year-round.”

Speaking of Runco, the former local jockey will likely miss the anniversary celebration slated for 6:30 because he will be saddling Coastal Mission in the Grade 2, $500,000 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on Saturday afternoon. Owned and bred by Coleswood Farm, the collaboration of Jeff and Susan Runco, Coastal Mission has won eight of nine starts this year including consecutive lucrative scores in the $250,000 Russell Road Stakes and $300,000 West Virginia Breeders Classic.

“This track is the reason a lot of people work and live in the area,” said Runco, who has saddled over 4,600 winners in his career including Researcher, hero of the first two Charles Town Classics, and Muad’dib, the reigning two-time West Virginia-bred horse of the year. “You have people who supply hay and feed and other supplies to the track that depend on racing. Plus, all the people that work in the casino. It’s amazing to think about how much the track has meant to so many people over the last 90 years.”

Saturday morning, a free panel presentation will be held at the Charles Town Library on North Samuel Street beginning at 11 am, with trainer Mike Jones, Jr., former Charles Town General Manager Dickie Moore, and former jockey and steward Danny Wright scheduled to participate in the panel. The discussion is part of a new exhibit at the Jefferson County Museum in the basement of the library where the panel will convene for its presentation.


Opening Day Charts

  • December 2, 1933: Charles Town opens with a seven-race card
  • 1964: Charles Town installs lights in order to race at night.
  • February 22, 1969: Barbara Jo Rubin wins at Charles Town, becoming the first woman to ride the winner of a parimutuel race in the United States.
  • September 11, 1987: Onion Juice wins the inaugural West Virginia Breeders Classic, securing the big share of the first $100,000 purse in West Virginia racing history.
  • 1995: Following the failure of a referendum to legalize slot machines at the track, Charles Town closes for several months as its ownership group seeks buyers.
  • 1996: A second slots referendum passes, bringing the machines to Charles Town and triggering the track’s purchase by Penn National Gaming.
  • April 18, 2009: Locally-based runner Researcher, trained by Jeff Runco, wins the inaugural running of the then-$500,000 Charles Town Classic, which one year later will become the first $1 million race in track history.
  • April 16, 2011: Duke of Mischief wins the Charles Town Classic, which earned graded status that year for the first time, becoming the track’s first graded stake.
  • April 20, 2019: Runnin’toluvya, another local runner, becomes the first West Virginia-bred to win the Charles Town Classic when he outslugs Diamond King by a half-length. Oscar Flores was up for Tim Grams.
  • August 28, 2020: In a decision driven by pandemic necessity, the Classic shifts to a summer date. The new card combines both the now-Grade 2 Classic and the track’s other graded event, the Grade 3 Charles Town Oaks into one blockbuster card. Handle on the event reaches nearly $5.7 million.