So much has changed — for the better — lately at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.

It was just a year ago that the property was deserted, caused when the COVID-19 pandemic reached a level where West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice ordered a statewide shutdown of everything, including the track and casino in mid-March of 2020. No one knew if, or when, the track, casino, or anything, for that matter, would re-open.

There was no Kentucky Derby Day last year. While the 2020 race was run last fall, it was still too early for any local celebration to resume.

Bobby Lott, a track steward, said it was such an eerie feeling last year at the track when nothing was happening. Like most everyone in the Charles Town community, he hoped things would eventually get better.

So when things finally began to slowly open up this year, it was greeted with guarded optimism. When it became evident restrictions would be relaxed to the point where spectators, even on a limited basis, could return to the track to watch the races and wager, excitement began to build.

All of that excitement reached a crescendo on Saturday when Derby Day returned to the Charles Town track. For the first time in over a year, carloads of people began showing up.

The casino, still with some capacity restrictions, began to fill up.  A lot of television screens around the casino and in the race track grandstands began displaying the live feed from Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

The ticket areas, where people could place their bets on various races around the country, were once again crowded, with physical distancing rules still in place.

The Skybox restaurant began filling up. Many patrons chose to have dinner there and watch the Derby on the big screen televisions throughout the restaurant.

As post time approached for the Derby, people who had already placed their bets headed back to their booths or tables in anticipation of the start of the race.

Shortly after 7 p.m. on Saturday, when the starting gates at Churchill Down flung open, releasing the19-horse field, cheers and applause could be heard throughout the casino, and in the track area, where some people gathered outside to watch the race on the big screen TV on the infield tote board.

Once again, it was your typical local Derby Day atmosphere at the Charles Town track. There was a lot of hollering, a lot of excitement, and — yes — a little bit of frustration when someone failed to have a winning ticket.

Erich Zimny, vice-president of  racing operations for Penn National Gaming, said in email he wasn’t able to say exactly how much money was wagered at Charles Town on the Kentucky Derby itself, but he said $274,000 was bet at Charles Town on all races in general at Churchill Downs on Saturday.

Once the Kentucky Derby had ended, local track officials began preparing for the regular, nine-race card. Paul Espinosa, Jr., track announcer, took his place in the announcer’s booth above the grandstands.

Espinosa looked out onto the track, then looked down briefly at the crowd near the railing. It was a sight he’s been waiting to see for some time.

“This is the largest crowd I’ve seen in about a year,” a pleased Espinosa said.

Like Espinosa, everyone’s hoping things will continue to get better and, when the Preakness at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course is held in two weeks, Preakness excitement will filter into Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.

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