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Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Lament for Horse Racing in Pennsylvania

Green has always been my favorite color, thus I relish the rich verdant variations that herald the arrival of each spring. It was my father who infused me with a love of Nature thorough our weekly Sunday walks through the woods and across the neighboring farm fields, and I fondly recall the sights and smells of those days even decades after the fact.

I thought of that recently while driving through the mountains on my way home for a brief visit with family. Blue skies, warm sun, the air fragrant with blooming purple lilac and yellow forsythia bushes, the redbud and crabapple trees bursting with blossoms—and every shade of green Nature possesses. Perfect weather, exactly the kind that makes for a fine day of horse racing.

One town I pass through is picturesque Ligonier, home to Pittsburgh’s horse and pony set (among the quaint shops surrounding the Diamond with its Victorian-style bandstand is Equine Chic “for Horse and Home”). Just outside of town are beautiful manicured farms with rustic split-rail fences, and, as I drive by one, I watch two young foals race one another while their mothers disinterestedly graze nearby. Further down the road I notice a farm for sale, 126 acres, and I begin to daydream about winning the $258.5 million Powerball jackpot. I’d buy the farm, stock it with fleet-footed thoroughbreds and set out to win a Kentucky Derby or two. Hey, the slots-infused purses in Pennsylvania, I could probably do pretty well, right?

Unfortunately, reality is disillusioning. In all ways possible, the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission (PHRC) as well as both the governor and state legislature dropped the ball on a pivotal opportunity to create a high-quality racing product when slots were introduced. Instead, mismanagement and a complete apathy for the sport, rooted in its obligatory attachment to slots and gaming which is the real cash cow, has created in Pennsylvania a situation where money is metaphorically being flushed down the toilet, along with the quality of its racing product.

The list of problems appears endless. Persistently beset with complaints regarding its poor quality racing surface, Penn National recently endured the Michael Gill fiasco, his racing manager Anthony Adamo’s suspension, and an as-yet-undefined grand jury investigation that likely has contributed to the resignation of PHRC acting executive secretary Michael Dillon.

After forcing horseplayers to play second fiddle to on-site casino patrons, Philadelphia Park (or, should I say, Parx Casino Gaming and Racetrack) has a new facility, but isn’t a good neighbor, having been cited by the state Department of Environmental Protection with washing horse manure into the Neshaminy Creek watershed. They’ve done virtually nothing to improve the grandstand and other race track facilities, and don’t forget how Greenwood Racing Inc. has allowed Atlantic City Race Course to deteriorate into a shell of its former self, holding only six days of live racing per year. Meanwhile, come hell or high water, Philadelphia hosts racing year-around, as does Penn National.

Presque Isle Downs is no better. Mountaineer Gaming continues to put zero effort into improving the track-going experience for racing fans—all at the expense of slots and table games, of course. It’s bad enough not a single dime was initially expended to provide for grandstand seating, and even the apron lacks the slightest gradient to allow for convenient track viewing while standing. Now, word is the partially-enclosed section of the apron has been claimed for construction of the new table games facility which opens in July, and some aren’t happy about dropping Sunday racing or the complete lack of access by reporters to the track’s backside. Makes you wonder what they want to hide.

Exactly how many of PA’s three thoroughbred race tracks have applied for and been granted accreditation through the NTRA’s Safety and Integrity Alliance? Look at the map below to see for yourself:

None. Not surprising considering the complete disconnect between those state officials supposedly entrusted with properly regulating the industry and the casino executives who couldn’t care less about the tracks. In fact, their apathetic non-compliance led the American Grade Stakes Committee to revoke the graded status of the G2 Pennsylvania Derby and G2 Fitz Dixon Cotillion at Philadelphia Park, and the G3 Masters Stakes at Presque Isle Downs earlier this year (recently reinstated).

So, if they could care less about the highest quality races offered in the state, how infinitesimal do you think they care for daily race events? As per horsemen's demands and with money to spare, apparently the more, the better—thus perpetuating low quality racing at the expense of developing a better product. Philadelphia Park and Penn National may have been beyond hope, but when the license for Presque Isle was granted, the state should have required the licensee to step up and created a first-class facility for racing instead of the shit-hole void of any trees or decorative charm that exists there now. With its 100-day season perfectly positioned between Keeneland’s spring and fall meets, in relative close proximity to Saratoga, Woodbine and Arlington, Presque Isle could have been a destination race track. Instead, it’s just another mediocre nighttime simulcast.

If on-track patrons are persona non gratia and it’s the ADW customers that Presque Isle, Penn National and Philadelphia Park are interested in, you would think at the very least they would put some money into their websites and broadcasts, right? Instead, there is virtually no original information or flashy graphics on their individual websites (click embedded links above) which are boring. On the other hand, look at the new website for Philadelphia’s Parx Casino—it’s only for a complete lack of interest that the race track websites are barebones. At the very least, considering the amount of money poured into the coffers of both the state and the casinos, Pennsylvania tracks should be required to upgrade their video broadcasts, much like Churchill Downs Inc. has upgraded its tracks to high-definition. What a magnificent improvement for horse players that would be!

But, why should Pennsylvania racinos bother spending money on promoting racing or making sure a high-quality product is offered? If the industry dies or self-implodes as it likely is, they don’t have to be bothered with it any more. And politicians don’t give a shit because the money now directed to purses and breeding incentives can instead be funneled into the state coffers to be misspent at their indiscretion.

Talk about ruining a dream...guess I'll pass on the farm.


The_Knight_Sky said...

Fairly strong words here and I could not have expounded it much better myself.

Every racetrack that is blessed with slots revenue MUST have their racing product broadcasted in hi-definition format these days. That much is basic.

Initially, I had high hopes for Presque Isle Downs, but it now serves as an example of what happens when the novelty wears off locally. The installation of Tapeta and the overpayment of purses towards mediocrity did not help.

Pennsylvania horse racing if it wants to stop the slide must lower their industry high takeouts to get the attention of a vast nationwide audience. Otherwise it is going back to where it started from pre-slots.

A "new fan base" does not stand a chance to stay in the game for very long at the current rates.

Anonymous said...

Why should we be surprised at any of this? Since pari-mutuel Thoroughbred racing in the state began in 1969, it has always been about pushing an inferior product while doing major damage to entities in neighboring states.

What happened when Liberty Bell and later Keystone (Philadelphia Park) opened? It saturated a market that was doing just fine with seasonal, popular racing at Garden State, Delaware Park and, to a lesser extent, Atlantic City. PA's entrance into the game drained customers away from these fine facilities and cheapened the product throughout the region.

Penn National, a year-round factory, has never been and never will be a place for class racing. Neither were Erie Downs, Pitt Park or Pocono Downs when they raced Thoroughbreds, and Presque Isle is more of the same.

IMHO, Pennsylvania has been the scourge of racing in the Northeast for four decades.

Anonymous said...

Too bad the PA horse industry couldn't roll the clock back prior to the Act 71 Slots Bill being passed. Before the money started to roll in was the time to redo PA horse racing. Now, the bad guys are up to their elbows in cash and it feels to good to consider anything else. Shame on the PA Racing Commission for watching this happen without interference, and shame, shame, shame on PA's legislators and Governor for acting as enablers.

Chris said...

I'm not sure I could ever give up such a gorgeous dream, no matter how futile it seemed at the time!

Perhaps not an easy task - but surely one worth the risk - is finding others who want to voice the same opinion, and do something about the situation!

On a lighter note - thanks for the link to EquineChic - what a great idea! Will have fun wandering around this site.


Thank you for your insight on racing in Pa. The introduction of full gaming will increase the slot income and hopefully the purses
at Pa. race tracks.

I own Seneca Farms and I am also marketing the Erie County Airport Horse Race Training Facility near Erie, Pa. that has an existing 17,000 sq heated building, an airport and 360 acres. I am looking for an experienced thoroughbred group who wants to
develop a training facility.
Call me, George Vietze 814-464-7800
information can be found on web site or

Racing is far from dead in Pa.
follow the numbers in Erie and watch the slot revenue grow....