Transformed Philly Park Officially Becomes Racino

Finely-dressed valets and friendly doormen stand outside. Upon entering the newly renovated building, there is a well-decorated lobby with several front-desk workers to assist people with any and all questions. Plush red carpets lead into an enormous first floor casino, complete with dozens of cocktail waitresses, bars, a cashier window, and of course, thousands of slot machines.

On the second floor it is much more of the same--bright colors, coins splashing, bells ringing, and the sight of hundreds of people milling around a bevy of slot machines. Off to the side there is a deli for those who want to grab a bite to eat.

Sound like an Atlantic City casino? It's not. It's Philadelphia Park.

For those who have been frequenting Philly Park for the past 33 years, the sight of what it has now become is almost unimaginable. Seemingly overnight, the Bensalem Township, Pa., racetrack has gone from a dated place to bet horses to a racino that, when all is said and done, is likely to be one of the biggest entertainment attractions in the Philadelphia area.

On Dec. 19, Philadelphia Park Casino and Racetrack officially opened its doors to the public. It took about two and a half years after the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act was passed for the state's biggest racetrack to open its slots parlor.

Over the next couple of years, revenue from the slots should transform Philly Park into an upper-echelon racetrack in terms of purse structure. Daily purses, which have stagnated around $100,000 per day for years, could increase to as much as $500,000. Already some of the nation's top owners and trainers have expressed interest in sending their horses in.

"It has been Bob's vision for a decade," Philly Park chief executive officer Hal Handel said of Bob Green, Greenwood Racing's chairman and president. "He has been preaching this gospel for as long as I can remember--it seems like since the Revolution ended. It's very gratifying to finally have it done. It's our job now to really deliver top-notch racing."

Handel said 300-500 tradesmen have been working "12 and 14 hours and day, six and seven days a week for three months," to meet the grand opening deadline of Dec. 19. Renovation of the first two floors has forced racing bettors onto the third floor, where they will stay for the foreseeable future. The third floor was also renovated to the tune of $5 million, as more televisions, tellers, and bars were added, among other amenities.

Philly Park is the second of seven Pennsylvania racetracks to begin slots play. On Nov. 14, Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, a harness track in the northeastern part of the state, opened its doors. Seven additional stand-alone parlors in and around Philadelphia will eventually go up. Horsemen and breed development programs will receive up to 18% of the total gross revenue, while racetracks get 45% of revenue.

"This affords us the opportunity to transform the racetrack into a recognizable North American racetrack--not just Smarty Jones' track," Handel said. "We don't want to try to compete with New York or California on stakes programs, no matter what the money is here. We want to work a top quality overnight program to produce all-year simulcasting around the country, 200 days a year, eventually with purses of $500,000 a day.

"The experience at Pocono Downs has been so good so far--it has exceeded anyone's expectations. Who knows what we'll do here, but we expect to do very well. It should be very sustainable purse growth over the next few years. Right now, we're kind of all still pinching ourselves because we've been talking about this for so long. To finally have it here is a good feeling."

Over the next five to 10 years, Philly Park will undertake many more renovations. According to Handel, about $12 million has been allotted to the stable and living areas, and already track officials have begun research on a synthetic racing surface. Plus, in a few years there is talk of beginning work on a facility that could include restaurants, clubs, theaters, and a convention center.