Season of Change Begins at Delaware Park

The track has made some changes in a contentious gambling environment.

Delaware Park opened its 75th season of Thoroughbred racing on a picture-perfect afternoon May 12 with a large crowd, yet it was also set to face some challenges for the 100-day meet.

Delaware Park’s once-dominant share of the casino gaming market in the Mid-Atlantic region has been severely eroded in recent years because of the proliferation of gambling in neighboring states. The track’s slot machine revenue has declined continuously since the opening of nearby Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack in January of 2007, according to the Delaware Lottery Commission, and is projected to slide even more with the opening of the Arundel Mills Mall casino in Maryland this spring.

Gaming revenue notwithstanding, total pari-mutuel handle at Delaware Park also has decreased sharply in recent years. Last year, total wagering—ontrack, export, and import handle—was $190,198,242, the lowest since 1996, when expanded gaming became operational, and a drop of $36,015,876 from 2010, according to the Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission.

As a reflection of the lower gaming and wagering revenue, purse levels at Delaware Park will average about $190,000 per day, significantly lower than the $225,000 offered last year. Three stakes, the Brandywine, R.R.M. Carpenter Jr. Memorial, and the Vincent Moscarelli Memorial were cut from the stakes schedule, while overall stakes purses were slashed $350,000.

However, the purse for the Delaware Oaks (gr. II), set for July 14, was boosted from $300,000 to $400,000.

The bottom claiming price was increased to $6,250, eliminating the $5,000 level, while the money available to lower-level horses was also reduced.

“We wanted to allocate more purse money to the upper-level claiming races and allowance races,” said John Mooney, the track’s executive director of racing. “We were particularly concerned about the quality of horses running on the bottom, and we wanted to be in balance with gaming revenue.”

This year, the track will run a four-day week—Saturday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Running Thursdays instead of Tuesdays should help improve ontrack attendance and handle, Mooney said, as there is no competition from Parx Racing in Pennsylvania.

The racetrack and the training track received major renovations over the winter, as severe flooding the last two years caused extensive damage, especially the flooding from Hurricane Irene in late August 2011.

“Our consulting firm, Joe King & Associates from New York, came in and made some recommendations,” Mooney said. “We peeled the surface back on both tracks, did nuclear density testing, and replaced it with new material, improving the drainage and adding cushion.”

While a new contract with the Delaware Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association wasn’t signed until 10 days before the 2012 meet opened, the two sides have agreed to work with each other toward the goal of increasing attendance and handle in the face of declining gaming revenue.

“We will be working with management on marketing the sport, and we will have some input on how to do this,” said Bessie Gruwell, executive director of the Delaware THA. “There are plans to run radio ads, to run a special Father’s Day card on Sunday, June 17, and also to run four Thursday twilight racing cards in the fall to take advantage of the sports-betting crowd.”

Gruwell said opening day had one of the biggest crowds she could remember; the track does not report attendance figures. “By 9:30 a.m. all the picnic tables in the ‘Grove’ were taken, and by mid-afternoon the Grove and the grandstand were packed,” she said.

Despite the fact six of the eight races on the opening-day card were cheaper claiming events, ontrack handle only dipped about $10,000, Gruwell said. Total handle declined about $100,000 from 2011.

Last year Delaware Park was plagued by short fields and even was forced to cancel several cards due to lack of entries. Mooney said the racing office planned to card one fewer race per day to help prevent similar cancellations this season, but the barn area was currently only about half full.