'New' Penn National Awaits Opener

'New' Penn National Awaits Opener
Photo: File Photo
The old grandstand/clubhouse (pictured) was demolished in 2006 to make way for an integrated racing/gaming facility.

It will be a new day for Thoroughbred racing in central Pennsylvania Feb. 12 when Penn National Race Course, rebuilt as a racing and gaming complex, reopens for live racing as the Hollywood Casino at Penn National.

The old grandstand/clubhouse, which opened in 1972, was razed in 2006 to make way for slot machines. For more than a year, pari-mutuel operations have been in housed in a temporary facility without a view of the racetrack, but that’s about to change.

The exterior of the facility is done, the slots are in place, and the first condition book lists record purses for Penn National. The opener was scheduled for Feb. 5 but pushed back a week to ensure the interior of the facility is ready.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, but it’s coming into focus,” said Chris McErlean, vice president of racing for track owner Penn National Gaming Inc. “It’s going to be a big change from what people are used to.”

Penn National is scheduled to race 204 days in 2008 under an agreement with the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. When the 2007 meet ended Dec. 21, purses averaged about $90,000 a night; when the track opens they will average about $110,000. Last September, purses averaged about $55,000.

McErlean said live racing would be held either four or five days a week depending on the time of year on a Tuesday-through-Saturday or Wednesday-through-Saturday schedule with first post at 6:45 p.m. The track dropped weekend racing to focus on export of its signal on weeknights after the old facility was demolished.

“There are trade-offs to racing Saturday nights,” McErlean said. “It’s a more competitive simulcast market, but we feel we have a market on track, and we’ll have a new dining room (overlooking the track). There are some advantages to being open on a Saturday night; it will be an experiment.”

Penn National has 25 barns. Under the deal with the Pennsylvania HBPA, 19 will be replaced and six refurbished, said Todd Mostoller, executive director of the horsemen’s group. About $10 million will be spent over 10 years on backstretch improvements; the state's gaming law, passed in 2004, mandates such work.

“Once demand is needed for additional barns, we’re hopeful Penn National will see the need to build them,” Mostoller said of the expected interest from trainers that may want to relocate to Penn National. “I think a lot of farms (in the area) may end up opening training centers.”

Mostoller said horsemen “negotiated an advance on purses” that will be paid back to PNGI when revenue from slots is generated. For the first time ever at Penn National, the purse for a maiden special weight event will top $20,000, and high-priced claiming races with pots in excess of $25,000 are in the first condition book.

McErlean said he expects purses, projected to increase once slots revenue is realized, will lure new faces to Penn National. The track has a turf course, which is another advantage.

“We’re getting a lot of Midwest guys expressing interest, like those from Ohio,” McErlean said. “I think more people will look at Penn as an option. You can ship to eight other tracks in three to four hours.

“The first year will be a transition year; we’ll be revising some eligibility standards and phasing out some of the lower classes. Guys will definitely have to upgrade their stock and restock. We’ll have a better sense of that in 2009.”

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