Wheeling Downs on Wheeling Island
In 1937, "Wheeling Downs" was opened under the auspices of the West Virginia Jockey Club for harness racing as a half-mile horse track on the grounds of the old State Fair Park. Races were held from late May to late June and from late August to late September. The parimutuel system of betting was used.
In 1945, William George Liakakos, better known as bootlegger and crime boss "Big Bill" Lias, bought the Downs at a bankruptcy auction and spent a lot of money on improvements. Painted green and white, the beautiful new facility earned the nickname, “Little Churchhill Downs.” In 1948, Lias was charged with income tax evasion and The Downs was seized in 1952. But the federal government lost money trying to run it, so they hired back Lias. His $35,000 salary made Lias the second highest-paid federal employee in the United States. In 1957, Wheeling Downs was sold at public auction and most of the money went to pay Bill Lias's unpaid back taxes.
A 1962 fire ended racing until 1968. Harness racing resumed from 1969 to 1975. Following the passage of a dog racing bill by West Virginia in 1975, almost $1 million was spent to convert Wheeling Downs to dog racing, which began in 1976.
➤ View a timeline of the history of Wheeling Downs
➤ 1 S Stone Street, Wheeling Island — now called Wheeling Island Casino and Racetrack
➤ No notes at this time
➤ Vertical File: Wheeling Racetracks, Wheeling Room, non-circulating, ask for access at Reference Desk.
➤ Archives Vertical File: Wheeling Downs, please call 304-232-0244 to make an appointment or ask at reference desk.
➤ Archiving Wheeling Blog Post: You Can Beat a Race, But You Can’t Beat the Races: Memories of Wheeling Downs & Big Bill Lias, Hugh Stobbs, February 25, 2017