New Penn Mile seen as cornerstone of track’s brand-building efforts
by Teresa Genaro
When Dan Silver got to Penn National last fall to serve as the track’s director of racing operations, one of the first things he did was to meet with racing secretary Dave Bailey and corporate vice-president of racing Chris McErlean. The three men looked at the national stakes schedule, trying to find a spot for a marquee race that would fill a need on the racing calendar.
The track is following the model set by its corporate stablemate, Charles Town, when it created the Charles Town Classic. In 2009, Charles Town—like Penn National, owned by Penn National Gaming–inaugurated a new, high-priced stakes race. The first Charles Town Classic for older horses offered a tiered purse structure with a minimum of $500,000 purse and attracted a field full of stakes winners, including multiple graded stakes winners Commentator and Dry Martini.
The race’s fifth running this year boasted a $1.5 million purse and Grade II status, and Silver hopes that the brand-new Penn Mile can follow in the path blazed by its neighbor to the southwest.
“We wanted an event that would get big horses,” said Silver. “I’ve always been a fan of turf racing and I’m intrigued by trying to do something on turf.”
“Our philosophy is that by consolidating the stakes schedule and building a few marquee days that you can really market around,” said Silver, “we can strengthen our brand throughout the rest of the year.”[pullquote]“Our philosophy is that by consolidating the stakes schedule and building a few marquee days that you can really market around,” said Silver, “we can strengthen our brand throughout the rest of the year.”[/pullquote]
So instead of spreading its stakes money on a number of races with all roughly equal purses, the track will instead invest heavily in one race, in the hope that the Penn Mile can attract the horses to bring it national attention and eventually graded stakes status.
Pennsylvania HBPA president Tim Shea supports the strategy, even though he knows that some of the track’s purse money is likely to go to a trainer shipping in for the race. “That’s always a concern of ours,” he acknowledged. “But Dan is a very pro-racing director, and he’s very interested in improving our product.”
He also noted that even the smaller purses for stakes races end up going to shippers.
“This is worth a try,” he said. “Dan has done some heavy publicity and really gone out of his way to make it a big day, at the track and through the betting hubs. The plan is to get us on the map and into the spotlight a little more.”
“In the simulcast market, there are a lot of signals that we’re competing against,” said Silver. “We want people to look at Penn National tracks like Charles Town and say, ‘That’s the track where they ran the Charles Town Classic, I saw Game On Dude win there,’ and maybe they’ll gravitate towards betting our races. That’s what we’d like to have happen with the Penn Mile.”
In 2009, the first year of the Charles Town Classic, that track’s overall handle — including live, import, and export — was a shade under $200 million. Handle has steadily increased since, to more than $253 million in 2012, an increase of more than 27 percent. Handle nationally declined more than 11 percent in the same period.
With few distance grass races between the American Turf at Churchill Downs on Derby day and the Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs on July 13, Silver saw an opportunity. But he knew he’d need to offer a financial incentive to get the horses to come to the Penn Mile instead of the Grade 3, $150,000 Hill Prince at Belmont Park on June 15.
The $500,000 purse more than makes up for the lack of graded status, said trainer Todd Pletcher, who nominated five horses to the race and has entered two.
“This race has pretty much been on our radar screen since we knew it was there, and we thought both of these horses were good fits for it,” he said, referring to Charming Kitten and Jack Milton.
“The lack of graded stakes status isn’t a disadvantage at all, because the money’s good. It’s more about the timing and the lucrative purse.”
The Penn Mile will anchor a day of open stakes racing that includes the Mountainview Handicap, the Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup, and two divisions of the Penn Dash, as well as two races restricted to Pennsylvania-bred or –sired horses, the E Dubai HBPA and the Smarty Jones HBPA.[pullquote]“The lack of graded stakes status isn’t a disadvantage at all, because the money’s good. It’s more about the timing and the lucrative purse,” said Todd Pletcher.[/pullquote]
In addition, Penn National will focus that night on Thoroughbred aftercare. The retired Metro Meteor, who earned nearly $300,000 in a 27-race career and whose last race was at Penn National, will be at the track with his paintings, which will be sold to raise money for New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program. Penn National will also make a $10,000 donation to be split among New Vocations, CANTER Pennsylvania, and ReRun.
“We want to do everything we can to try and further the efforts of all of these great organizations,” said Silver, “to try to take care of our racehorses after their racing careers are over.”
The Daily Racing Form has donated hats and books to sell that night, with proceeds going to the three retirement organizations.
Post time on June 1 is at 6 p.m.; the Penn Mile run as the fourth race with an approximate post time of 7:22.(Featured image is of Ben’s Cat, who will run on the Penn Mile undercard. Photo by Laurie Asseo).