Philly Park Prepares to Enter the Big Time

by Jason Shandler

Purses for July at Philadelphia Park averaged just under $120,000 a day, but in a year, they will be almost twice that amount, with much more growth expected when revenue from slot machines begins pouring in.

The potential for huge purses--$400,000 to $500,000 a day has been bandied about--is due to the legalization of slots in July. The law authorizes up to 61,000 devices throughout the state, with as many as 5,000 at Philly Park. And with up to 18% of slots revenue earmarked for purses, the track is prepared for a major transformation.

"What we're hoping is that we'll go from what we are now, which is very much of a minor-league, year-round, grind-it-out kind of track to a premier facility that offers some of the best racing in the country," Philly Park chief executive officer Hal Handel said after the Aug. 24 meeting of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission. "I think that we have some great advantages in that we're a self-contained facility, and somebody with stakes horses can ship to New Jersey, Maryland, New York, Delaware, or West Virginia very easily. That's a very good thing.

"Bucks County (where the racetrack is located) is a nice place to live, too. So we're incredibly excited right now. This has been something that has been a decade in the making."

Philly Park and the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association said the week of Aug. 23 they had reached an agreement to increase purses by about $18 million in advance of slots revenue. Purses, to be gradually raised beginning Sept. 1, are pegged at $225,000 a day by late next year.

The track and horsemen also agreed to $13 million in backstretch improvements, including renovation of grooms' quarters, refurbishing of barns, construction of four new barns, and construction of a training track, according to published reports.

Racetracks in the state will get almost half of the revenue from slots, while purses and breed development will earn between 12% and 18% depending on whether the money is generated at a track or a non-racetrack slots casino. To make room for the slot machines, Philly Park plans a 300,000-square-foot parlor that will be built onto the current facility.

Eventually, Bob Green, president of Philly Park owner Greenwood Racing, would like to turn the facility into a family vacation spot, complete with hotels, restaurants, concerts, and other amenities. The track is located in the Philadelphia suburbs near a Pennsylvania Turnpike exit and Interstate I-95.

"We're going to be a very attractive opportunity in this part of the country for almost anyone," Handel said. "The sky is the limit for us, and once the gaming commission is ready, we can start planning the route we're going to take."

No date has been set for when the first slot machines will be installed and begin operating, but Handel is hoping for the summer of 2005.

In other news, it was reported to the racing commission that handle through Phonebet, which is based at Philly Park, is down more than 11% from the same period last year. Handel said the decrease is due to restrictions by Magna Entertainment Corp. on account wagering on all of its signals.

MEC, which operates the XpressBet account wagering system, adopted a policy in late 2003 that limits access to signals from its racetracks through other account-wagering services.