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NORTHFIELD, Ohio — The gambling scene is on the verge of getting more crowded in Ohio.
Horse racing tracks offering slots-style video lottery terminals will debut Thursday in Lebanon, northeast of Cincinnati, and next Wednesday in Northfield, north of Akron.
Miami Valley Gaming in Lebanon and Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park both offer expanded gambling options beyond traditional betting on horses.
Ohio already has horse racing tracks with slots, called racinos, near Cleveland and Columbus. Racinos also are planned in the Youngstown, Cincinnati and Dayton areas, all opening next year.
Ohio has voter-approved casinos in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo. They began opening in 2012 in Cleveland.
The ThistleDown racino which opened in April in North Randall near Cleveland has been a big draw, grossing an Ohio-best average of $361 daily in October from its 1,150 video lottery terminals.
ThistleDown was Ohio’s second racino. The Scioto Downs racino opened last year in Columbus.
Unlike Ohio’s casinos, the racinos don’t offer poker or other table games.
That means racinos must find other ways to attract people, said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
“They will try to outdo each other with customer service,” he said in a phone interview.
Competitive payouts to winners can help too, Schwartz said. Even a percentage point difference in payouts to winners can be important to serious gamblers, he said.
“That means your money is going to last a little bit longer,” he said.
At Northfield, located between Cleveland and Akron about 10 miles down the road from ThistleDown, the “rocksino” hopes its iconic Hard Rock branding and $1 million in glitzy rock music memorabilia on the walls will make it stand out in an increasingly crowded market.
And it’s banking on an array of non-gambling attractions, including an opening night appearance by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and a guy-friendly steak restaurant named for Cleveland Browns favorite Bernie Kosar.
“We think those pieces and the service we will deliver are what I like to call differentiators that kind of set us apart from the competition and give people a reason to come to our place,” Northfield president Jon Lucas said.
And it has winter-ready amenities like a heated sidewalk at the five-lane entrance driveway and outdoor smoking patios with slots and heaters.
Lucas said low population growth in the region was a concern amid increased gambling options, but said the rising pace of competition would stabilize when the last of seven racinos opens next year in Ohio.
Schwartz said bettors are likely to patronize gambling outlets that offer the most attractive incentives.
Miami Valley ramped up for its opening with a progressive 12-day registration incentive offering over $75,000 in free play.
The Miami Valley racino also offered a chance for “a $100 free play High Five” in return for email contacts to encourage brand loyalty.
The goal is to build interest in the $175 million project before another racino opens further north in Dayton next year. Miami Valley also faces casino competition in Cincinnati and Indiana.
The casinos and expanding racino industry in Ohio risk cutting into each other’s business, Schwartz said.
Figures from the start of legal gambling in Ohio “don’t suggest there’s a ton of growth” likely in the gambling industry, he said.