The simmering feud at Philadelphia Park between racing and casino interests came to a head last week when the horsemen publicly said how disappointed they were with the short shrift they think racing has gotten since the slots casino opened in December. As management said it wanted to delay building the promised $300 million permanent casino complex in one of the parking lots, the horsemen reacted.
While the slots have now gotten $1 billion in action, the racing handle at the track is down dramatically over the last few months. The slots action is on the track's first and third floors. Racing has been sent up to the fifth floor.
Kentucky Derby Day was a chance for the track to attract tons of gamblers wanting to bet on the races. And they did just that. There was, however, a problem. There just isn't the amount of space that horse players were used to.
"I ended up at PhillyPark for the Derby," wrote longtime fan Leon Nazian in an e-mail. "It is a bleeping crime what they have done to track loyalists there. I have been going to that place since I was a kid with my Dad and can remember putting in my first legal bet there the summer after I graduated high school.
"Now the people that kept that place treading water for the last 20 years are jammed up on the fifth floor. The tents outside had [really long] lines."
There was a giant screen outside to watch the Derby, but this is a gambling game. And, if people have to wait in long lines to bet, they generally won't be pleased.
Philly Park's chief executive officer Hal Handel, a racing guy, understands the concerns - with Derby Day and the racing action on just the fifth floor.
"If I was a regular and went there every Saturday or every Monday, I would be dissatisfied with the fifth floor," Handel said. "I would think that I would cut back on my visits. I don't find it terribly pleasant. But I really don't think what happened on Derby Day outside was not materially different from other Kentucky Derby or Pa. Derby Days."
If, in fact, most of the slots action does eventually move to a new building in the parking lot that will no longer be an issue. Until that is resolved, it is an issue.
According to Handel, parimutuel handle at the track is down "15 percent for the year . . . The Turf Clubs that are between Philadelphia Park and Chester [where Harrah's opened its slot operation in January] are getting killed."
Handel pointed out that some of the track's racing customers are also slot customers.
"If Philadelphia Park and Chester Downs are taking $12 million in play on a Saturday afternoon in coin in each, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that some of that is coming from guys that used to be at the Turf Clubs," Handel said. "It's like the parimutuel system has been shocked."
The Pennsylvania Derby is scheduled for Labor Day. It was canceled last year due to the construction in the grandstand for the slots conversion. The purse has been raised to $1 million.
In recent years, pre-slots, management has done a very nice job of promoting the race. They were getting crowds in the vicinity of 20,000 for the race.
Handel and his management team looked at Kentucky Derby Day as a dress rehearsal for Pa. Derby Day.
"I didn't think it was bad, candidly," Handel said. "We had about 9,000 people, which is actually up a little from last year's Derby. We probably had 2,500 people up on the top floor. We had mutuels out in the paddock. We had mutuels in the front corner of the building. We added four windows in the lobby to do Derby express bet."
There were other mutuels in places where there usually are not machines. Still, it was quite crowded.
"It certainly wasn't perfect, but it was functional," Handel said. "There were [long lines]. We hired everyone we could find to work. Maybe we have to do a better job of explaining to people how to use the self-service machines."
After observing what went down on Saturday, Handel thinks "we can probably accommodate a few thousand more and have a pleasant day [for the Pa. Derby] if we change up a couple more things out in the picnic area. We certainly could have used more outside bathrooms and more mutuels. We can build more mutuels, but the problem is finding people willing to work 1 day."
The PhillyPark stewards had revoked leading trainer Jayne Vaders' license, effective yesterday. The Pennsylvania Racing Commission has granted her a stay. A hearing on the matter will be scheduled.