Since the Philadelphia Park casino opened a year ago, approximately $4 billion has been pushed through the slot machines. After payouts, the total revenue is closing on $400 million. The track gets 45 percent of that revenue. The racing industry gets 12 percent. Of that 12 percent, 80 percent goes to purses for the horse owners. When that much money is on the table, there is usually a way to find common ground.
After a contentious summer when track management was suggesting its temporary casino inside the racetrack building might become permanent and the horsemen loudly objected, the sides have come to an agreement.
The horsemen have signed off on management's plan for a $250 million stand-alone slots facility in the unused portion of the massive parking lot. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board will consider the matter at a Dec. 18 hearing.
Yesterday, the track and the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association announced a 7-year contract extension to a 7-year contract, which was originally signed in 2004, the year the slots legislation was passed in Harrisburg. So the contract will go through 2018.
Management has agreed to renovate all 36 barns over an 8-year period and the 12 dormitory facilities over a 4-year period. If someone used the term "horse ghetto'' to describe current conditions on the Pha backstretch, that would be a charitable characterization.
"Philadelphia Park has really stepped up and delivered,'' said Mike Ballezzi, PTHA executive director.
Ballezzi estimates the cost of the backstretch renovation at $25 million to $30 million under current economic conditions.
A model of the new casino facility was on display in the lobby of the track's Steakhouse, where yesterday's announcement was made. If the board grants approval, construction could start next month, with a finish date of December 2009. Under terms of the contract, the track would then have 6 months to take the slots out of the racetrack and restore it to a racing-only facility.
A year ago, the track's horsemen were running for purses of $120,000 per day. By Jan. 1, the purses, because of the slots money, will have nearly doubled to $235,000 per day.
"Horse racing in the state has been through a very difficult time,'' said the track's chairman, Bob Green.
When Green and his team took over two decades ago, nothing, not even the track's survival, was certain. Since then, management and its horsemen have had their battles. In the end, they also have found a way to agree. Agreement surely comes easier when the pie is so much larger
"In the last 24 years, I've signed many contracts,'' PTHA president Larry Riviello said. "This is the most important of all.''
The purses are skyrocketing. The dilapidated barns are going to be replaced. The living conditions for the backstretch workers, not exactly the equivalent of a four-star hotel, will be much nicer.
"These were interesting and most of the time pleasurable negotiations,'' Ballezzi said. "We wanted a long-term agreement. We will be proud to bring anybody here . . . we didn't want to just be considered a casino, but also a racetrack.''
If this all goes according to plan, the casino should be up in 2 years. In 30 months, the track should be the track again, not with slots on two of the three floors.
"We view this agreement as a significant accomplishment,'' Green said. "We have always made it clear that we intended to construct and maintain a first-class facility, both for our casino and horse-racing patrons.''
Well, there was some confusion about that this summer. Now, there is not.
When the state horse-racing law was enacted in 1967, the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission was created. Before the contract announcement, a brief ceremony was held to mark its 40th birthday.
"The horse-racing industry is a significant contributor to Pennsylvania's economy and lifestyle, ranking in the top 10 nationally for the number of horses and value of sales with nearly $1 billion in wagering revenues,'' Gov. Rendell said in a statement. *