Live racing and training at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course will be suspended following the Sept. 20 racing program for a resurfacing project of the entire racetrack cushion. The unexpected shutdown of the Pennsylvania racetrack is believed to be due to track conditions that have resulted in a high number of recent catastrophic breakdowns, based on information from horsemen, although Penn National officials have disputed that assumption.
The project, which will include about 8,000 tons of silt and sand that will be mixed to create the new track cushion, is expected to last until the end of October, which means about six weeks of racing—roughly 25 programs—will not be offered. In addition to the new material, the underlying limestone base at some areas on the outside of the track will be repaired.
“This project was originally being prepared as part of our 2009 capital planning process, but accelerating the work will assist our track maintenance staff in their efforts going into the fall and winter racing seasons,” director of racing Rob Marella said in an Aug. 29 statement. “The base incorporating the inner racing paths is in solid condition, but with removing the entire cushion, we are provided the opportunity to firm up the outside portions of the base as well.
“We are building some time into the project to account for possible weather factors, but feel confident the work can be done in a timely basis so the downtime affecting our horsemen and track-related staff is held to a minimum.”
Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association president Joe Santanna and Penn National-based trainer Todd Beattie, said the 2008 meet has been marred by breakdowns. Beattie claimed Aug. 28 that 14 horses had suffered catastrophic breakdowns during a 22-day period that began Aug. 7.
Those numbers have not yet been confirmed by racetrack or state officials, but Santanna said there have been a high number of breakdowns. Attempts to reach Pennsylvania Racing Commission chairman Richard Abbott were unsuccessful.
“Back in June, we asked Penn National to consider a major resurfacing project because the breakdowns were beyond what we thought was acceptable,” Santanna said Aug. 28. “They indicated that they would do major resurfacing in 2009, but it would have to be declared an emergency to do something in 2008, due to budget reasons.
“Then, in August, the breakdowns became more frequent, and we felt the level was completely unacceptable. We just can’t have horses continue to break down like this. It is disrespectful to the horses and it puts the riders in danger.
“More recently, (Penn National) engaged the services of a racetrack expert to analyze the surface, and a report was to be submitted with the findings of that study. I have yet to see the findings.”
Beattie, one of the leading trainers in Pennsylvania, said he recently moved Fabulous Strike, one of the nation’s top sprinters, from Penn National to a barn at Presque Isle Downs & Casino due to concerns over the safety of the Penn National racing surface. He has a private barn at Penn National.
“It’s a shame what is going on there,” Beattie said. “The racetrack is terrible right now. To have that many breakdowns is shocking.”
Santanna said horsemen asked Penn National to consider installing Tapeta, the synthetic surface used at Presque Isle, and that the Pennsylvania HBPA would be willing to make a significant financial contribution to do so. He said the request was denied.
In a phone conversation Aug. 30, Penn National Gaming Inc. vice president of racing Chris McErlean disputed both the breakdown numbers that Beattie reported and that racing was suspended due to an unsafe surface.
"Those are not correct statistics," McErlean said regarding the 14 breakdowns. "Based on the numbers that the Pennsylvania Racing Commission provided us, there have been four breakdowns in August during racing and three repored breakdowns during training. That is coming straight from the state.
"We are not suspending racing because the track is unsafe. Based on the findings of an independent expert, we felt that this was a good time to put a revised surface in there. Unlike most racetracks, we do not have an off-season here. We race all year around, 208 days a year. The window of opportunity to complete the resurfacing is rapidly closing due to the winter. We felt this was the best time to have the work done."
Regarding the request by the HBPA to install Tapeta at Penn National, McErlean said "We don't think it's right for our track and the weather conditions here."
In July, PNGI issued a white paper on its plan for equine health and safety initiatives. It addressed racing surfaces.
“We have fully reviewed the many successes and disappointments associated with the first generation of alternative racing surfaces, and will continue to evaluate their long-term potential for our multiple racing facilities,” the company’s white paper said. “As that process evolves, we will continue to employ the highest possible track maintenance procedures at our facilities.”
Penn National traditionally races year-round. The track’s slot-machine casino opened in mid-February, and through June of this year—the end of the 2007-08 fiscal year—slots had produced more than $72.68 million in gross terminal revenue. The Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Fund alone received more than $8.7 million during that period.
Hollywood Casino gaming operations will continue uninterrupted 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Full-card simulcasts will continue at the property on a daily basis.