Fewer Racing Dates Sought for Penn National

Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course is poised to become the next track to tighten its racing schedule to conserve purse money and promote larger fields.

The Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission has approved Penn National’s application for a statutory minimum of 227 dates in 2010. But management and the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association have proposed a 200-date schedule for next year.

Chris McErlean, vice president of racing for Penn National Gaming Inc., parent company of the track near Harrisburg, said Nov. 20 the PHRC informally accepted the joint request for 200 nights of racing. Action is expected at a December meeting.

Dates can be reduced if a racetrack and its horsemen’s group agree to do so.

The plan, acknowledged by Pennsylvania HBPA executive director Todd Mostoller earlier in November, comes as horse racing’s share of slot machine revenue is being reduced. Under the new Pennsylvania budget, the percentage for purses and breed development programs will fall from 12% to roughly 10% for the next four years.

Penn National opened its slots casino in February 2008, and since that time, the quality of racing has improved dramatically.

For 180 programs so far this year, the track has paid $32.2 million in purses for a daily average of $179,161, according to The Jockey Club Information Systems. Field size has averaged 9.15 horses per race, quite high for a track that races four or five days a week year-round.

“The goal was to try to maintain the current average daily purse number, and the 200 days fit that scenario,” McErlean said. “We think the four days a week works well for maintaining good field sizes. Given we usually have cancellations in the winter, we will make up those days later in the year, so the reality is there will be five-day weeks at some point.

“This year, given our cancellations and adding a race Fridays and Saturdays for a few months, we will end up the equivalent of around 205 racing dates for the year.”

If the schedule is approved, Penn National will open Jan. 1 and race through Dec. 30 with racing four days a week with the exception of a two-week break in September.

Racetracks around the country have trimmed schedules this year because of horse shortages or a need to maintain purse levels; many intend to do so next year. Churchill Downs, Delaware Park, Hollywood Park, Santa Anita Park, and Turfway Park are among the tracks that have cut back in 2009.

Soon after the Pennsylvania budget passed, the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association said a reduction in revenue for the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Fund would amount to a loss to breeders of about $2.7 million a year for four years.

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