Horsemen Welcome Advent of Slots at Philly Park

The sound of slot machines springing to life as more than 1,000 customers rushed through the front doors of Philadelphia Park on Tuesday, Dec. 19, moments after a ceremonial ribbon-cutting, was clearly music to the ears of the Bensalem, Pa. racetrack's thoroughbred owners and breeders, many of whom had waited years for slots to become a reality.

"To me, it feels like landing on the moon," said Mary A. Kernan, a director/owner of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "Over the years, owners have been very patient while still supporting our program, and now I'm grinning like a Cheshire cat at the thought of the increased purses we'll soon be running for, thanks to slots."

As of Jan. 1, 2007, purses will increase from $125,000 per day to $175,000, and for the first time be paid back to last place. An expanded state-bred program will also be implemented, including restricted maiden special weight and allowance races.

Joe Wilson, Philadelphia's vice president and general manager, said that while no new stakes races are planned, existing ones will be improved.

"We'll be paying attention to our current stakes, raising the purses and no doubt attracting some good quality horses," he said. Because the majority of the building has now been renovated to accommodate slots players, and with horseplayers now having to use either the elevators or escalators up to the third floor for wagering and simulcasting, Wilson said that management will be observing Kentucky Derby (gr. I) day on May 5 closely, a day which typically attracts a big racing crowd.

"We'll be looking at several options, including expansion in the picnic area," said Wilson. "Derby day will be a good test to see how we'll handle Pennsylvania Derby day (Labor Day) in September."

Trainer Kathleen DeMasi, who conditions a large string at Philadelphia and operates the highly successful Pewter Stable, which specializes in racing and claiming partnerships, with her husband Greg, said that the promise of higher purses has sparked renewed interest from both established and prospective owners.

"This has been a long time coming," said DeMasi, who is a director/trainer of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "Owners have been very patient, and now they're going to be running for some serious money come summertime."

DeMasi said that a lot of improvements are planned for the Philadelphia backstretch, including renovated dormitories for stable help.

While many horseplayers accustomed to having plenty of elbow room in the grandstand were upset at the lack of space allotted to them, most horsemen say it is well worth it.

"The inconvenience of the construction and renovations is nothing," said trainer Don Reeder, a Philadelphia Park staple since the 1970's, when the track first opened as Keystone Racetrack. "Racing could have been shut down here if it wasn't for slots, just like it almost was at Delaware Park and Charles Town. Now we'll all have a chance to run for top money and make a good living."