by Linda Dougherty
For the first time in at least 30 years, Parx Racing will not run a year-round schedule in 2016.
Under a three-year deal inked between the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemens’ Association (PTHA) and Parx management, the Bensalem oval will run 153 days next year, down from this year’s 210 dates.
The reduction in dates is believed to be a pre-emptive strike in advance of Senate Bill 900, which would allow Category 1 license holders (racinos) to reduce racing dates to a minimum of 100 per year, and allows each track to have up to four non-primary locations with up to 250 slot machines.
Money from the non-primary locations would go into the state’s General Fund, not into the Race Horse Development Fund. The bill also proposes Internet gaming, which also will not be tied to horse racing.
Interestingly, among the legislators who introduced SB 900 is Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson of Bensalem, Pa. Tomlinson was instrumental in getting the original slots legislation passed in 2004.
The three-year deal calls for Parx to close December 23 through February 13, and the entire month of August. Parx will keep the track open for training during those dark periods, and it will invest $4.4 million in racetrack infrastructure and property improvements.
To compensate horsemen for the loss of racing opportunities, the track will present a “Fall Festival” in September and October, in which purses will be doubled to nearly $500,000 a day. The purse money will come from the 2016 winter dates that will be cancelled. Local horsemen will be given preference at the entry box; if a horse stabled on the grounds wins a race during that time, it will earn 15 percent more.
In 2016, it’s possible that one month in the spring will offer the doubled purses, and one month in the fall.
“It’s a done deal,” said one PTHA Board member in advance of the meeting. “We all signed it at the last meeting. After 2018, who knows what will happen?”
At a general membership meeting on the backstretch this morning held by the PTHA’s Mike Ballezzi, most horsemen were supportive of the changes, with only one person, a Board member of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association, voicing her displeasure at the deal, sources said.
Kate DeMasi, a PTHA Board member and a longtime leading trainer at Parx, said that the deal took a lot of work by Ballezzi and PTHA head Sal DeBunda, and that the general feeling is that the horsemen have steered their own destiny, rather than been forced into something by legislators and/or Parx.
“Unless we have a mild, El Nino winter, it’s inevitable that we lose days during January and February anyway,” said DeMasi, who cited one drawback being the cost of pre-racing a horse, only to find out racing is cancelled. “We’re going to have a place to train with no day rate cost, horsemen can freshen their horses or go to Florida if they like, we’ll keep our pension and healthcare benefits, and we’re going to present a two-month ‘boutique meet’ in which purses will be high and fields will be full, good betting races. I think it’s going to be great.”
This year, Parx will close the last eight days of August in order to let the track prepare the surface/turf course for the “Fall Festival,” and also to let horsemen have time to cycle their horses into the rich races.
In other legislative news, on June 22 the Senate approved legislation that makes a number of changes to the state’s oversight of the horse racing industry. One major change dissolves the separate state commissions under the Department of Agriculture for thoroughbred and harness racing in favor of a single oversight commission.
Senate Bill 352, whose prime sponsor was Senator Elder Vogel, now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.
“My bill also makes a number of necessary changes to licensure, fines, fees and the pari-mutuel tax structure to properly fund regulatory oversight and drug testing,” said Vogel in a statement.