by Tom De Martini
Cancellation of one program because of a lack of horses did little to dent the Delaware Park meet, which opened with enthusiasm and features a new program designed to increase attendance.
The May 10 program, which would have been the fourth of the meet, was bagged when only five races filled. Since then, however, more horses have filled the stalls at the racetrack.
Opening day April 30 attracted a large crowd--exact numbers are not reported because of the ontrack casino--and total pari-mutuel handle of $1.5 million, with $247,863 wagered ontrack.
“We were fortunate,” Delaware Park executive director of racing John Mooney said. “We had a good program and a good card. When people come up and start asking you about what new trainers are coming in for the meet during simulcasting, you know that people want to see live racing.”
The first day of the 106-day launched a new marketing partnership between track management and the Delaware Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. The Giddy Up & Go Racing Club kicked off with a large turnout of parents and children utilizing the track’s expansive picnic grove.
“This year (the Delaware THA) has new leadership, and we’re being more proactive to take advantage of our beautiful grove, which we feel is one of the best in the country and gets high marks for those who are familiar with it,” Delaware Park chief operating officer Andrew Gentile said.
Bessie Gruwell, executive director of the Delaware THA, found herself surrounded by more than 500 kids who joined the club that will hold monthly fun days through September.
“Hey, we’ve got to find a way to grow a new fan base,” Gruwell said. “Someone all brought us to the races when we were kids. We reached out to the local people to bring them out and try to hook them on racing.”
Delaware Park management opted to open April 30 rather than May 7 at the horsemen’s behest. They wanted a standalone opening afternoon card rather than competing with the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum Brands (gr. I) program.
“We fought hard for the day,” Gruwell said.
Gentile noted that while opening day races filled quickly and the track’s 1,550 stalls are spoken for, the meet’s success will hinge on a combination of horse population and writing competitive races to fit horses stabled on the grounds.
Through 11 racing days this year, field size averaged 7.58 horses per race, up from 7.40 for the same period in 2010, according to The Jockey Club Information Systems.
“(Racing secretary) Pat (Pope) and John (Mooney) do a great job of that,” Gentile said. “From what we’ve heard the horse shortage is going get worse, and Pat and John do a great job of staying in tune with the horsemen and writing races that fit the horses we have. We do that with the horsemen and the cooperation and coordination of the racing office working as a team.”
The first condition book listed overnight purse levels at about $200,000 per day, a level track officials expect will remain constant throughout the meet. TJCIS statistics show average daily purses of $229,313 for the first 11 days of the meet, up from $217,430 for the same period last year.
“We want to make our 3-year-old races go and keep the purses competitive, which is why we cut days (from 2010),” Mooney said. “As long as we can compete on the bottom level, we’ll be all right. We’d like to see more of the (purse) money go into our maiden special weight and allowance categories in 3-year-old races. We want to stay away from writing allowance optional claiming races. Those aren’t competitive at all.”
Gentile said full stalls are a good sign, but one of the major issues Delaware Park has faced in recent years is the dearth of available horses to open the season despite year-round stabling on the grounds.
“(Year-round stabling) hasn’t gone as originally expected, but we had about 500 horses on the grounds this winter and (track superintendent) Ken Brown did a tremendous job keeping the track open as many days as possible, given the weather,” Gentile said.
Delaware Park in 2010 bucked national trends and saw all-sources handle rise 7.16%.
“If we do over eight (starters) a race, we’ll do fine,” Mooney said. “We have a lot of trainers who ship up here from Louisiana, Arkansas, and the Midwest. They’ve got a big following and that helps our (simulcast) handle.”
That handle uptick, in the face of a nearly 5% decrease in starters per race, is also attributed to tweaking the live racing schedule. Delaware Park dropped Sunday racing and offered live cards Saturdays and Mondays through Wednesdays. The financial results were dramatic, according to Mooney and Gentile.
“Sunday is a great family day and it’s hard to explain this to our customers, but it was also our lowest revenue day,” Gentile said.
Mooney pointed out just how compelling the numbers were. An average Sunday pulled in approximately $600,000 in all-sources handle in 2009. More than $3 million in all-sources wagering was handled on Wednesday live cards last year.
The new schedule forced management to break up the Delaware Festival of Racing, featuring the $300,000 Delaware Oaks (gr. II) and $750,000 Delaware Handicap (gr. II), and shift it to consecutive Saturdays rather than one weekend.
“When we did it in 2009, we had a great Saturday and a terrible Sunday,” Mooney said. “(Track owner William) Rickman wanted to know why, and I told him that this has become an event-driven sport. With the economy the way it is, maybe people can only come one day instead of two.”
The pair of grade II races will take place July 9 and 16, respectively, this year.
On the casino side, Gentile noted the opening of Sugar House Casino in Philadelphia and a Penn National Gaming Inc. slot machine facility in Perryville, Md., have taken a toll on slots revenue at Delaware Park.
“We’re down 13.6% year-over-year in the first quarter on slots,” Gentile said. “There’s an oversaturation in the Mid-Atlantic slots market right now.”
Yet, the best thing that’s likely happened to Delaware Park, as far as crossover play is concerned, is table games. In the past, racing players eschewed slot machines and left that entertainment to their spouses, Gentile said.
“We’re finally seeing our racing players visiting the casino a lot to play craps; a ton of them are crossing over to poker, and some to blackjack,” Gentile said. “But craps and poker seem to be the games of choice for racing players.”
Officials also have experienced an uptick in pari-mutuel wagering from Thursdays through Saturdays in the fall when football parlay wagering is available.
“The (parlay) cards come out on Wednesdays, and we see the biggest crossover wagering on racing Thursdays through Saturdays,” Gentile said. “Sunday was our biggest football wagering day but on Saturdays, people tended to stick around, and we started giving beginner seminars to sports bettors on how to bet horse racing.”
Last year’s ontrack experiment that reduced pari-mutuel takeout on exactas bet at Delaware Park to 10% from 19% wasn’t offered at the start of this year’s meet.
“We seeing if we can work with our tote provider to see if we can tweak it,” Gentile said. “There was some confusion happening with the tote provider and the offtrack wagering customers. It’s not a dead issue.”