PhilPark horsemen have slots of issues

Posted: June 19, 2007

Was it really just 6 months ago when that ribbon was cut and all those smiling gamblers rushed past all those smiling faces of Philadelphia Park officials and its horsemen into the Bensalem slots casino?

Everybody, it seemed, was thrilled. Management was going to make a big score with its share of slot winnings. The horsemen were getting a nice cut, so their purses were going to go up dramatically.

Times have changed.

In April, Greenwood Gaming, which owns the track and casino, petitioned the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to have the temporary slots facility at the track continue some time into the future, saying it needed more time to construct a permanent facility. Most took that to mean the temporary facility was going to be the permanent facility.

This, after saying it was going to build a $300 million stand-alone facility in the parking lot. When that was built, the track was going to revert to just being a race track, instead of a combination slots/racing facility where the racing patrons were only on the fifth floor, a small area near the paddock and the track apron.

From the horsemen's perspective, since the slots came, the racing handle is down 15 percent at the race track, which inevitably impacts purses even as slots money goes to supplement the same purses. A permanent facility figures to increase the money wagered on slots, which would raise purses. The horsemen also want their facility back for just racing.

Late last week, there were reports that the track had asked the board to dismiss its petition. According to Mike Ballezzi, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, what the track actually did was file a motion for a continuance, requesting that a hearing on the petition be delayed until October.

"This is just another example of why Greenwood Gaming is not to be trusted," Ballezzi said in a statement. "There has been a public backlash against Philadelphia Park's proposal. With increasing public scrutiny, I think Philadelphia Park realized it was in a very weak position to claim that construction of a new facility was no longer prudent or feasible.

"They have operated in bad faith throughout this entire process. We believe Greenwood Gaming realized it had no factual basis to justify their petition, which is why we are asking the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to dismiss the petition outright. Barring that, we are requesting the right to discovery and a date certain for a hearing, both to begin the process of probing Greenwood Gaming's allegations and future plans for Philadelphia Park and to ensure that Greenwood does not seek repeated continuances."

This could be a semantic issue. Or it could, as the horsemen believe, be something more.

"Under the statute, Philadelphia Park is required to have a permanent facility completed by September 2008, with the possibility of a 1-year extension," Ballezzi said. "Philadelphia Park will be hard-pressed to meet that statutory deadline, and I question whether they truly ever had any intention to do so. Philadelphia Park wants to bring in the cash from slot machines without making the capital investment in their facilities that they promised."

The Greenwood petition in April read, in part: "It is no longer prudent nor feasible for the company to commence construction of a replacement stand-alone facility to be completed within the time frame contained in the conditions attached to Greenwood Gaming's application."

Management apparently is saying it needs more time. The horsemen think management is stalling and has no intention of ever building the standalone casino.

In a news release last Thursday, Greenwood said it "has requested that the PGCB grant a motion for a continuance of that element of its expansion petition relating to the reclassification of its existing facility."

In the release, Greenwood's chairman, Bob Green said: "Before this matter is considered by the board, we are requesting a few extra months to further redefine the first phases of our proposed master plan for the whole of the Philadelphia Park property. As our petition makes absolutely clear, that plan will provide details of further expansion and phases of development beyond our existing facility. That preparation is an ongoing process which we will be pursuing aggressively over the next few months . . . There have been certain misconceptions and, in some cases, misrepresentation about the classification issue and our future intentions."

Slot betting recently passed the $1 billion mark. Betting on horses at the facility has been down dramatically since slots were introduced in December.

"Horse racing at Philadelphia Park is slowly being killed off because of the conditions we are forced to operate under," Ballezzi said. "Philadelphia Park committed to build a new facility that would have improved conditions for horse-racing fans and slots patrons alike. It needs to be forced to keep that commitment." *

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