Amid high expectations and even higher purses, the latest racetrack fueled by slot machine revenues was unveiled Sept. 1, when Presque Isle Downs opened its 25-day meet.
Located near Erie, Penn., Presque Isle boasts average daily purses of about $500,000, with an even higher figure for horses eligible for state-bred bonuses. The lofty purses are a result of revenue from the Presque Isle Casino that began operations Feb. 28.
Enticed by an aggressive marketing campaign and free admission and parking, fans began piling into the track when it opened mid-afternoon for a 5:30 p.m. (EDT) first-race post.
The large crowd overwhelmed the limited areas set aside for watching the races. The clubhouse, which seats 350 to 400 for dining and is the only area above ground level where races can be viewed, was booked well before opening day. The other areas for public viewing of races were the first-floor terrace just off the main casino floor, and the track apron.
An accurate attendance figure was unavailable due to the free admission and access to the races by casino patrons, but track personnel estimated attendance at 15,737. On-track wagering was $126,204, with $460,035 wagered at the more than 300 simulcast outlets taking Presque Isle.
Despite a large number of out-of-state stables shipping in for the inaugural Presque Isle Downs meet, the Pennsylvania Racing Commission licensing office at the track did not open until noon. Numerous owners, trainers, and grooms attempted to be licensed early in the day. Once the office opened, a steady stream of license applicants filed into the office all afternoon and throughout the evening race card.
The track’s first race and the opening-day feature, the $100,000 Inaugural Stakes, was won by Dick Colvin and William Gould’s Miss A. Bomb. Trained by Grant Hofmans, the 3-year-old daughter of Lemon Drop Kid won in a photo finish over Tres Dream and paid $11.80. Favored Cantrel fractured a sesamoid and “disruption of the suspensory apparatus in the right front,” according to the association veterinarian.
“The goosebumps have been here all day, and they have not subsided,” said track president Richard Knight. Presque Isle Downs and Casino is owned by MTR Gaming, which also operates Mountaineer Park racetrack and casino in West Virginia.
Opening of Presque Isle Downs meant a return of live Thoroughbred racing to northern Pennsylvania for the first time since Erie Downs closed in 1987. Although Presque Isle is among the Pennsylvania casino operators required to have live racing as part of its license, Knight said the company would still want to operate a racetrack. “That is how our company got its start,” he said.
Presque Isle is also the first North American track to begin racing over the Tapeta Footings synthetic surface. The eight races went in final times that were formful, with some races won on the front end and others by come-from-behind horses.
Trainer Michael Dickinson, who developed the Tapeta surface, said trainers and jockeys had a favorable impression of the surface. With the exception of the first-race breakdown, all other starters came back safely on the night’s card.
Both Grant Hofmans and Miguel Mena, the winning trainer and jockey, respectively, of Inaugural Stakes winner Miss A. Bomb, attributed the win to the fact the filly trains over the synthetic surface at the Highpoint Training Center in Kentucky.
While the large crowd and successful debut of the Tapeta surface were the high points of the day, Presque Isle did not open without some problems. Jockeys said the jocks’ room was too small and lacked amenities found at most other tracks.
Some trainers said they were not comfortable with the loose gravel base of the stalls in the five 100-stall barns. Hoses were prone to dig through their straw bedding and disrupt the gravel making large ruts in the stall base, the trainers said.
Debbie Howells, Presque Isle’s director of racing, said there are plans to place rubber mats in the stalls to prevent the problem. She said that might not be done for this year’s meet but would be completed before the 100-day summer meet in 2008.
Howells said management plans to meet with all parties involved with racing upon completion of the meet to determine what went well and any problems incurred during the meet.