'100% Purses' Plan Still in Running in Pennsylvania

A racetrack at which all revenue after expenses would go toward the racing product remains in the works and in the running for a license in Pennsylvania, but the individual spearheading the project said it remains to be seen whether it would be a Thoroughbred track without slot machines, or a dual-breed facility with slots.

Joe Santanna, president of "100% Purses," a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, first discussed the plan three years ago when an application for a Thoroughbred license was submitted to the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission. The idea behind Freedom Park, which would be located in the Lehigh Valley less than two hours north of the Philadelphia metropolitan area, is to reinvest all profits in the purse structure.

Two other entities based in western Pennsylvania are seeking the lone remaining Thoroughbred license, which doesn't carry a provision for slot machines. There is, however, one Standardbred license not yet awarded, and that one does come with the right to apply for a slots license.

The Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act of 2004 allows for slots at seven tracks and seven non-track locations. The state's four existing tracks are awaiting slots licenses, as are two others now under construction.

The licensing process for the harness track got caught up in a legal fight that has created a lengthy delay. The Pennsylvania State Harness Racing Commission has appealed to the state Supreme Court a Commonwealth Court ruling ordering it to reconsider a license application for a track in the western part of the state.

Santanna indicated the situation could open a door for Freedom Park, which would be located on 485 acres in Palmer Township in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton metropolitan area.

"Our hope is they reopen the application process for a Standardbred license," Santanna said. "We're poised to submit an application for a Standardbred license, and if we get the Thoroughbred license, run (dual-breed) meets like they do at Meadowlands and Woodbine."

Santanna noted there's a provision in the slots law that says if a Category 1 license--one for slots at tracks--isn't issued in five years, it reverts to a Category 2 license, which is for non-track slots casinos. That leaves about three years for the licensing process.

When the Freedom Park plan was unveiled, organizers said the track would offer 100 days of live racing within three years of opening, with daily average purses of $1 million based on projected slots revenue. As additional profits are generated, the meet would be expanded or purses would be increased.

Santanna was asked if the project would be viable without the slots license.

"We've looked at the numbers under those circumstances," Santanna said. "We could race 75-100 days, not the 220 days a year the Thoroughbred tracks in the state now run, for about $100,000 a day in purses. We think there's a niche in Pennsylvania for that (type of program)."

Currently, purses at Philadelphia Park average about $130,000 a day, and at Penn National Race Course, $70,000 a day. When slots revenue kicks in, purses at those two tracks could increase to about $350,000 and $200,000 per day, respectively.

"When their purses are (boosted by slots) and ours are not, we think there will be plenty of horses looking to run for a $100,000 a day," Santanna said. "There could be a lot of Pennsylvania-breds looking for a place to run until the (breeding) program gets competitive with the new purse structure in the state."

Santanna said having a Thoroughbred track without slots would force 100% Purses to scale back its plan and seek financing from investors "other than Wall Street." But he said the model of returning all profits to horsemen for purses and racing amenities wouldn't change.

"We'll always have that model," said Santanna, who also serves as president and chairman of the National HBPA. "But with slots, it makes the model look interesting, novel, and attractive."

Freedom Park would be located within two hours of Penn National in Grantville, Pa., Philly Park near Philadelphia, and Meadowlands in northern New Jersey. The Downs at Pocono, a harness track located near Wilkes-Barre, Pa., about 1 1/2 hours north of the Lehigh Valley, has operated an off-track betting parlor near Allentown since the early 1990s.