by Linda Dougherty
Since it opened in 1974 as Keystone Racetrack, Parx Racing has consistently conducted year-round live action, offering horsemen an opportunity to settle down in the Bucks County, Pa. area without having to move from track to track.
Aside from assorted short dark periods in August, when track maintenance was performed, Parx continually churned out card after card, month after month, regularly running more than 200 days each year.
All that is changing, however, as Parx is getting ready to shut down December 22 through February 13 – not a very lengthy break, but enough to send many of its horsemen scattering to other tracks, although the backstretch and main track will remain open for those who choose to stay. The track also plans to shutter three weeks in August, 2016.
Those who choose to remain on the Bensalem backstretch and run their horses at Aqueduct can avail themselves of a free shuttle service being offered by the New York Racing Association, in partnership with Sallee Vans, from Dec. 26 through Feb. 12. NYRA is hoping the shuttle will help boost its field sizes. Pickups will begin each day at 4:15 a.m.
Many horsemen, especially those with larger strings, have already headed south to Florida. One of them is Keith Nations, whose stable numbered roughly 35 horses at its peak this season.
“I’m at Tampa Bay right now with 20 horses,” said Nations, the current sixth-leading Parx trainer with 40 winners and $1.3 million in earnings. “I looked at other options but being from northern California, I wasn’t quite digging the last two winters in Pennsylvania (when temperatures plummeted to near-record lows, accompanied by multiple snowstorms), so I’m glad I’m here. The purse structure isn’t quite as good, but it’s a great environment.”
Nations said he left some horses at Parx, mostly Pennsylvania-breds that will run at Penn National, but they’ll either join him in Florida in the future or will go to a farm for some time off.
“I’ll probably come back North in March, or whenever the weather breaks,” he said.
Robert E. “Butch” Reid, who is currently the ninth-leading trainer at Parx with 33 winners and $1.4 million in earnings, has also split his stable.
“I’ve got a half-dozen horses here with me at Palm Meadows,” said Reid. “I left 15 at Parx, mostly Pennsylvania-breds. I’ll probably freshen some up in Ocala and some at Kelsey Parisi’s (his former assistant) farm in Cochranville (Pa.).”
Susan Meckling, a trainer who owns a small farm near Parx Racing in Bucks County, said that all of her horses will get a break when the track goes on hiatus.
“They’ll get a six-week break,” said Meckling, who is also a board member of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association. “Because my horses are PA-breds, it didn’t make sense to go anywhere else.”
Meckling said the unusually warm weather has been kind to the main track, unlike recent harsh winters, which caused it to freeze and thaw repeatedly from December through March.
Jockey agent Bob Martel, who has had the book of leading rider Frankie Pennington for many years, was looking forward to shifting his business to Tampa Bay Downs.
“I’ve never worked anywhere else but here (Parx),” said Martel, who added that he and Pennington will leave on Dec. 27. “I’ll be going to Florida, but my kids will stay home because of school. There’s a number of trainers that we expect to be riding for, like Kelly Breen, John Servis, Derek Ryan, Keith Nations.”
Martel, an avid fisherman, said he’s excited about doing some fishing and golfing in the Tampa Bay area.
Pennington currently leads the jockey standings by a wide margin, with 121 victories and nearly $5 million in purse earnings. He’s closing in on the milestone 2,000-win mark, with 1,933 recorded through Dec. 20, a milestone he should achieve in 2016.
Not everyone is excited about the break. Bonnie, a commenter on The Racing Biz whose husband works as a Parx groom, opined, “It is nice that the trainers can ship, or go to Florida, but what about the workers, the ones who are breaking their backs day after day, and living hand to mouth? Where do they go?”
The Parx racing office will remain open during the break from Monday through Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
PARX NOTES: Longtime local trainer Keith LeBarron passed away at age 62, the Daily Racing Form reports.
They didn’t buy Parx until December 1st 1989.