Phila. Park horsemen angry over slots plan

Posted: May 26, 2007

The harmony that existed between Philadelphia Park management and its horsemen after the legalization of slot machines has soured following the racetrack's request last month to have the current temporary casino facility in the Bensalem track's grandstand reclassified as permanent.

The request by Philadelphia Park Casino & Racetrack, operated by Greenwood Gaming, was made April 5. Approval by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board is pending.

"They promised one thing then gave us the bait and switch," Mike Ballezzi, executive director of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said this week. "We need to see drawings, that they are proceeding with the original plans."

Greenwood has said it plans to build a $300 million casino and resort on the southeast portion of the present Philadelphia Park parking lot.

"We have no problem [with slots in the present facility] for a couple of years, but we're being squeezed. The patrons and horsemen are forced into a small area near the paddock. There are only two elevators to accommodate everyone [slots and horseplayers], and the fifth floor [restricted to racing and simulcasting] does not have enough seating. There is fragmented participation," Ballezzi said. "Live handle is down 30 percent over the last six months. We want our grandstand back."

Ballezzi said that $12 million approved for backstretch renovations over seven years, which were to begin in September, had yet to commence.

Hal Handel, chief executive officer of Philadelphia Park, called the current situation "very complicated" and said the petition to the Gaming Board was to "take away the ticking clock" and not to avoid building a permanent structure.

"It's not that simple. We need to look at the Philly market [licensing is under way for casinos in the city] and look for the right solution. It's not [track president Bob] Green's intention to make the present situation permanent. But you don't just rush in and spend hundreds of millions," Handel said.

Part of the track's petition to the Gaming Board is to add 340 to 370 slot machines to the 2,000 already operating at the facility.

"But it will not be at the expense of racing room, it's space already allotted," he said.

Handel said that the current slot machines were averaging about $370 each daily, "more than Atlantic City," and that backstretch improvements, including paving and barn and dorm renovations, would begin next week.

Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff and representatives of the Gaming Board and Racing Commission will tour the track on June 19.

Pino criticized. Jockey Mario Pino has been blamed in part for Hard Spun's third-place finish behind Curlin and Street Sense in last Saturday's Preakness, but the colt would likely have been third regardless of his ride, in my opinion.

"I'm sure Mario had his reasons, but I don't know why he went when he did," owner Rick Porter told the Wilmington News Journal. "It looked like he had a ton of horse at that point [near the far turn]. The fractions were just way too fast. I think he went way too early."

Curlin equaled the Preakness track record of 1 minute, 532/5 seconds, beating Street Sense by a head with Hard Spun four lengths farther back.

Xchanger, closely pursued by Flying First Class, went suicidal fractions of 224/5 seconds for the first quarter mile and 452/5 for the half before the pair were overtaken by Hard Spun and C.P. West near the far turn of the 13/16-mile classic.

"I personally don't think [Pino] did a bad job," former jockey Mike McCarthy said. "When he made his move, I said to myself, 'Why is he going with him now?' but he had a death grip on, and the two horses in front were stopping. Mario had to make a decision at the time. If he got stopped and lost momentum, he would have been questioned why he didn't keep a free-running horse in the clear. He was going to finish third regardless."

Pino was a victim of an unfavorable pace and would also have been chided if he had taken his speedy colt too far off the pace and tried to employ Street Sense's stretch-running tactics. Before the Derby, Hard Spun's connections justified allowing Pino to ride the colt in the jockey's first Kentucky Derby attempt. The 45-year-old veteran had won nearly 6,000 races.

Contact writer Craig Donnelly at 215-854-2839 or

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