NORTH RANDALL: Horses are no longer the only gambling attraction at ThistleDown.
Rock Ohio Caesars opened the state’s newest racino Tuesday, a venue filled with about 1,150 slots-like video lottery terminals, specialty restaurants, bars, nightlife area and — at least for the first night — American Idol winner Taylor Hicks in concert.
“Today is not just a day in the book of ThistleDown where we’re turning the page to tomorrow, we’re writing a whole new chapter,” General Manager Rick Skinner said.
Thousands of people were expected to visit the thoroughbred track, which dates to 1924, on the racino’s opening day.
Some came, as they put it, to win money. Others were there to hang out with friends and be part of the first-day festivities. And still others wanted to compare ThistleDown with the Horseshoe Casino in downtown Cleveland, Rock Ohio Caesars’ other nearby property.
“Being nosy,” Ardella Primm, 61, of Warrensville Heights said about what attracted her.
She came with friends and was one of the first people in line.
“All we want to know is, is it going to pay like downtown Horseshoe?” Primm asked. “Will it bling like Horseshoe?”
Rock Ohio Caesars says it invested about $88 million into the project, which transformed the first floor of the aging grandstand into a modern VLT parlor.
Joan Anderson, 76, of Cleveland said she was excited because she is not a fan of Horseshoe Casino, citing long lines and lack of free parking. She was eager to compare the two sites.
Once inside, she still wasn’t sure about her first impression.
“I don’t know yet,” she said as she played a Michael Jackson Bonus! machine. “But I’m having a ball with this machine.”
Others were impressed.
“I think it’s nice,” Stow resident Jane Wilson, 60, said as she played a machine. “It’s really nice.”
Ted Sims, 65, of Northfield Center Township, thought the same.
“I love it,” said Sims, who works as service director in Warrensville Heights. “It’s beautiful.”
Both the North Randall and Warrensville Heights communities hope the racino helps revitalize the area.
ThistleDown is across the street from the former Randall Park Mall and is in a commercially depressed area dotted with vacant storefronts and rundown properties. Rock Ohio Caesars says the racino has created about 700 new jobs.
“ThistleDown has been a place of entertainment for a very long time, but you haven’t seen anything yet,” North Randall Mayor David Smith said.
The racino is the second of the state’s seven horse tracks to offer VLTs, which are regulated by the Ohio Lottery Commission.
Scioto Downs in Columbus was the first, and Northfield Park in Northfield will likely be the third when it opens its Hard Rock Rocksino in December.
One of the big questions now for ThistleDown is whether it sucks business away from the Horseshoe Casino.
Officials have said that they believe the two facilities — and the third when Rocksino opens — can coexist.
ThistleDown might do well simply because some people won’t travel to downtown Cleveland to gamble. The free parking also is a draw for many folks.
Scioto Downs netted $11 million in its first month in operation last year and has continued to draw strong play despite the opening of the nearby Hollywood Casino in Columbus.
Unlike casinos in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo and Columbus, racinos offer only VLTs and not table games like blackjack and poker. To the average gambler, the VLTs look and play like slot machines.
ThistleDown will be open 24 hours a day and is part of the Caesars Total Rewards program, which provides benefits for members. In addition to free parking, it offers valet service at the main entrance and shuttle service in the parking lots.
There’s also an outdoor patio with VLTs where smoking is permitted.
Live racing will continue at the track, starting April 19. Simulcast racing is available year-round.
Rock Ohio Caesars has toyed with the idea of relocating ThistleDown to the Akron- Canton area, and the company still has an option with the state to move the track. A spokeswoman said that issue has not been discussed recently.
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or email@example.com.