- Slots in Pennsylvania are still a few months off at least, and licenses have not even been issued as of yet. Nonetheless, not far from Philadelphia, Harrah's has built the $430 million Chester Casino and Racetrack, and it will open on Sunday afternoon. The Racetrack part of it anyway. They'll conduct afternoon harness racing on Sunday, Monday, and Thursdays on a 5/8th mile track that not only overlooks the Delaware River, but the clubhouse turn, in a very complex engineering project, actually was built over the river at the cost of $11.5 million. [Philly Daily News] Whatsmore, the "apron" is actually above the outdoor seating, giving people who like to stand by the rail a much better view of the action. Without seeing a picture, I'm not sure exactly what that means, except that Harrah's seems to have a better idea than of how to build a racetrack than does Frank Stronach.
There used to be three tracks conducting harness racing in the greater Philadelphia area, but there's been none since Garden State closed in 2001. So there are probably some harness fans that are excited about the racing. But the real excitement will obviously be over the slots. According to an article in the Press of Atlantic City, the plant is expected to draw 3 million visitors a year, which would top the Liberty Bell as the No. 1 tourist attraction in the Philadelphia area.
“Instantaneously, we become the single-most visited tourist destination in the Philadelphia area,” said David N. Sciocchetti, executive director of the Chester Economic Development Authority. “Overnight, we get a tourist-recreation segment to our economy that never existed before. You have to go back a long time to count 3 million visitors to Chester. Now we're going to have that many each year.”At first, purses will range from $3800 to $12,000, and total around $70,000 per night. But in three years, Harrah's expects a "purse structure that could be competitive with anywhere, anyone in the industry, at least right now." [Delaware County Times]
It seems rather unlikely that the handle on afternoon harness racing, scheduled so that the racing will end before peak casino hours, will be nearly enough to cover those purses. I posted last month about Saratoga Harness, and the win pools that can sometimes total less than $3,000; yet the purses continue to rise with the fortunes of the casino. This opinion piece in the Des Moines Register (hat tip to Albany Law School Racing and Wagering Page) tells of how purses at Prarie Meadows, tied by law to a percentage of casino revenues as in Pennsylvania, have soared from $2.2 million in 1995 to $18 million even as losses mount, on-track handle declines, and the track is attracting the least in on-track betting of any track in the country.
So, while I've beaten this point to death, it bears repeating because no one's listening. It's very fortunate for our sport that tracks have this unique opportunity to pay out large purses and thereby attract better horses and, in turn, higher betting handle (though this has not happened at Prairie Meadows). But it can be a lot of smoke and mirrors and obscure what can be a very ugly picture. And soon, the Northeast will be oversaturated with slots in Pennsylvania, slots in New York, slots someday in Maryland, table games in Delaware and West Virginia to combat the slots in Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland, and the full-blown casinos that may very well come one day soon as state governments grow more desparate for revenue. If racing becomes complacent during the free VLT ride, they'll be a lot of trouble when it all comes tumbling down.