OH Panel Peppers PNGI on Racetrack Plans

The state racing commission expressed concern over patron seating and amenities.

The Ohio State Racing Commission March 12 continued its examination of plans for proposed racetrack casinos, peppering Penn National Gaming Inc. officials with questions about facilities planned for Dayton and the Youngstown area.

PNGI, which owns full-scale casinos in Columbus and Toledo, Ohio, has applied to relocate Beulah Park near Columbus to Austintown Township near Youngstown, and Raceway Park, a Toledo harness track, to Dayton. The OSRC and the Ohio Lottery Corp., which will oversee video lottery terminals at the tracks, must sign off on facility design plans.

PNGI said the Austintown track, to be called Hollywood Mahoning Valley Race Course, and the proposed Hollywood Dayton Raceway, would "have the same look and feel" in regard to the exterior of the buildings, VLT gaming floors, and racing amenities. Mahoning Valley will have a one-mile dirt track for Thoroughbred racing and Dayton a five-eighths-mile track for Standardbred racing.

OSRC members expressed concern over the number of seats and racing viewing areas planned for both tracks, neither of which will have dining rooms overlooking the racetrack. There will be apron level seating as well as some theater-style seats, and sports bars that will offer simulcasts.

PNGI vice president of racing Chris McErlean said the Austintown track will resemble Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course, which was rebuilt. Penn National in Pennsylvania does have a clubhouse dining room.

"It will be an integrated facility," McErlean said. "This is similar in layout to Penn National, which we've found to be the right size for a racing facility. The capacity versus (the number of people actually in attendance) isn't always the same."

OSRC chairman Robert Schmitz asked McErlean the value of having more than 260 seats in a covered but not enclosed area off the apron at a track that probably will race from October through April. He also suggested there aren't enough second-level indoor seats with a view of the live races.

"But I can't see the race," Schmitz said. "But I can't see the race. To call these clubhouse seats (is not reasonable). I have concerns on seating capacity. I find what you have submitted to be inadequate. This does not move racing forward in this state."

Beulah Park, which opened in the 1920s and was called Darby Downs for a short time, will be abandoned when Mahoning Valley is ready for racing. McErlean acknowledged there has been little promotion at Beulah Park, and said about 700 of the track's 1,000 stalls in the barn area are usable.

McErlean said Beulah Park on a good Saturday afternoon will attract about 400 patrons. On-track pari-mutuel handle has continued to drop, sometimes to under $10,000 on a program, and average daily field size is often six horses or less.

OSRC member Willie Koester said attendance numbers at Beulah Park shouldn't be used as a guide for a new facility in a different market.

"Beulah Park is the dregs of racing," Koester said. "I've never been to the Austintown High School, but I bet the gymnasium seats 2,000. We're going to have one-eighth of that (at Mahoning Valley)."

OSRC member Mark Munroe, who lives near Youngstown, said there is a lot of anticipation for the new track and gaming facility. He said he doesn't want people to be disappointed if they flock to the track and can't find seats or sufficient concession and dining areas.

"I would like to see more seats with a view of the racetrack," Munroe said.

PNGI officials will appear again before the OSRC March 20 with an update on the plans. There is space reserved for expansion on the first floor should crowds dictate, McErlean said, but the executive stuck by his contention Mahoning Valley will be the right size for the market.

McErlean said at some of the company's other tracks there could be "a couple hundred people" on the racing side day and night combined. He noted that at Penn National the amount wagered on racing in a year is about $25 million; it was $35 million when the operation was housed in a large tent during construction of the racetrack casino.

"Racing is very challenged in terms of popularity," McErlean said. "Even on live racing days most handle is bet on simulcast races."

Mahoning Valley plans call for about 600 stalls, but PNGI is in negotiations with the Ohio Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association to build more. The Jockeys' Guild also weighed in on the Austintown track plan March 12, asking the OSRC to require "due diligence" regarding jockey accommodations and safety for riders and horses.

Guild attorney Mindy Coleman said jockey representatives "had a good conversation" with PNGI officials March 8, and many questions were addressed. But she indicated the Guild isn't satisfied, noting "issues" other PNGI-owned tracks have had with racing surfaces.

"If they are going to skimp on the grandstand as well as the (barn area), what is to say they won't do the same with the (racing surface) and jockeys' quarters?" Coleman said.

McErlean responded that PNGI "isn't skimping on any part" of the proposed racetrack.

"Penn National takes racing very seriously," McErlean said. "I take particular offense to the comment that Penn National has issues with its other racetracks. We take safety very seriously at our racing facilities."

Mahoning Valley and Dayton Raceway will each open with 1,000 VLTs, with a possible expansion to 1,500 if business warrants.