Pennsylvania Track Plan Could Draw Opposition

The former president of Pocono Downs has a plan to bring Standardbred racing back to the Delaware Valley, but some view his proposal as an attempt to cash in on slot machines should the Pennsylvania legislature approve such a measure.

Joseph Lashinger, a former legislator who went on to work in an executive capacity for Penn National Gaming, which owns Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., wants to build a harness track at the site of an abandoned shipyard in Chester, Pa., a city located on the Delaware River just south of Philadelphia. Chester Downs and Marina would include a simulcasting facility and restaurant.

Lashinger, who plans to apply to the Pennsylvania State Harness Racing Commission for a license, said live racing would initially be held for only 25 days. The $21-million facility could be fully operational by the spring of 2004, he said.

Gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania support expanded gaming in some form. A spokesman for Democratic candidate Ed Rendell, who supports slots at racetracks, said: "We would have to look at the possibility of having slots at the Chester facility...We're trying to sustain the horseracing industry, not kill it through over-competition."

Sal DeBunda, vice president of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which represents horsemen at Philadelphia Park, called Lashinger's idea "a money grab."

Lashinger insists slot machines at Chester Downs would hurt Delaware racetracks more than those in Pennsylvania. He said the proposed facility would create 225 year-round jobs and 75 seasonal ones.

The southeast Pennsylvania betting market is controlled by Philadelphia Park, which operates off-track betting parlors in the area. One of the parlors is located near the Delaware border about a mile from the site of the former Brandywine Raceway, and only about 20 minutes from the site of the proposed Chester Downs.

Chester is located just across the bridge from New Jersey, where off-track betting parlors are expected to open at some point. Philadelphia Park owner Greenwood Racing, through Pennwood Racing, will operate some of the Garden State's betting parlors.

There was no word as to whether a new racetrack in the state would be able to operate off-track betting parlors, or whether legislation would permit only tracks open by a certain date to have slot machines.

The Delaware Valley, once a harness racing hotbed, has lost most of its tracks: Liberty Bell Park in Pennsylvania in 1985, Brandywine in Delaware in 1989, and Garden State Park in New Jersey in 2001. Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway in Delaware remain in operation.