PA Pony Roundup: Contraband Raid at Parx and OTB Zoning Decision Still Pending for South Philly

Posted By Kevin Shelly on June 3, 2021

A daily double of PA horse racing stories. OTB locations and drugs at a track sets the pace for this month’s Pony Roundup with implications for the wider business of Pennsylvania horse racing.

The stories are simmering but should break soon. Both have far-reaching consequences for all PA racing and the future locations of off-track betting venues featuring pari-mutuel gambling and sports wagering.

Let’s start with the pari-mutuel off-track betting location story for Parx Racing, officially named South Philadelphia Turf Club, but mostly just called the Turf Club. The current location is across the street from Live! Casino Philadelphia.

Then we’ll segue into an ongoing investigation which officials say uncovered stashes of “contraband” – described by unofficial sources as drugs for both humans and horses – at the backstretch area of Parx racecourse in suburban Philly.

Parx and Chickie’s and Pete’s OTB slow drama still unfolding

The Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment has slogged its way through four meetings and numbing hours of contentious testimony so far about the relocation proposal.

Under consideration is a plan to move the Parx OTB operation from the Turf Club to a location a few blocks away but still on Packer Avenue into an existing Chickie’s and Pete’s restaurant and sports bar surrounded by a residential rowhome neighborhood.

A local civic association opposes the move. Frustrated by the slow pace during the last May 25 zoning meeting, Chairman Frank DiCicco ordered both sides to submit written final arguments. A decision should be available by June 9.

No matter which way the vote goes, a court appeal seems probable, meaning more delay. Likely central to a challenge will be the board not requiring a variance for the move instead of allowing a “special exception.” The city’s own legal department raised questions about the move.

At one point, city attorney Leonard Reuter had suggested the proposed site would need to be licensed as a casino to comply with the city’s zoning law language, which varies from the wording of state gaming regulations.

PA Horse Racing commission stuck in the gate on OTB

In January 2021, the PA Horse Racing Commission petitioned to approve the OTB move and allow gambling at two additional Chickie’s & Pete’s locations. The plan was for one in Delaware County and to move one location from Montgomery County to Chester County.

However, the commission has sat on the proposals, perhaps waiting on the zoning decision. The Packer Park Civic Association wants to voice its case to the racing commission. The next race commission meeting is June 29, but agendas only come out days before.

Paperwork and a lawyer repping Parx indicated Parx has a longer-term plan to install betting outlets at additional Chickie’s & Pete’s locations. The lawyer said stand-alone pari-mutuel locations, even with sports betting, are no longer a viable business model.

A Chickie’s & Pete’s location is planned for Parx’s proposed mini-casino in Shippensburg.

If Parx succeeds in combining gambling with restaurant locations, it seems likely other OTB operations could try similar couplings. What makes this attractive is not the moribund pari-mutuel racing end of the equation. It is the sports betting element, which is allowed by default alongside pari-mutuel wagering.

Parx backstretch raided for contraband

The commission’s staff raided the backstretch at Parx racecourse in Bensalem, Bucks County, at the end of May.

The raid got an 80-second cursory mention at the last racing commission meeting on May 25. However, the extent of the search – and the key detail that the longtime trainer at Parx was suspended – was not mentioned.

A commission spokeswoman later detailed the extent of the search, which netted “contraband” from the following searches:

  • 64 vehicle searches
  • 7 veterinarian vehicle searches
  • 3 veterinarian office searches
  • 6 Barn searches
  • 6 tack room searches
  • 5 groom’s quarter searches
  • 5 external tack room searches

Testing results for Parx and Penn National horses that were not raced recently but were in the track’s barns remain pending. Penn had no reports of contraband.

The raid at Parx came at a fraught time for racing. The winner of the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit, was disqualified for a failed drug test. Medina Spirit’s trainer Bob Baffert was slapped with a two-year suspension from Churchill Downs Racetrack.

Horse trainer at Parx says he’s innocent

PlayPennsylvania independently confirmed the suspended trainer is Parx Hall of Fame trainer, Richard Vega, and that Vega had until recently trained thoroughbreds for racing commission member Sal DeBunda.

Vega, who has previously been fined $7,950  for infractions beginning in 2012,  asserted innocence during an interview last week with PlayPennsylvania.

However, he was already suspended by stewards when he spoke to PlayPennsylvania. An appeal on May 27 where Vegas had a lawyer present upheld his suspension, which found he was in possession of multiple syringes and “injectable substances.”

DeBunda wears many hats in horse racing. He is also a partner in a law firm. He said he’d never heard of any issues with Vega. DeBunda also said none of his horses ever lost winnings due to drugs.

DeBunda can easily lose his seat on the commission. He and at least three other sitting commissioners are carryovers, but he is not in line for reappointment.

Russell Reading, chairman of the racing commission and PA’s Secretary of Agriculture, has yet to comment about the Parx investigation and the suspension.

In other PA horse racing news

  • The commission has unanimously approved restrictions on clenbuterol use. The drug treats respiratory issues. But it can have steroid-like effects. A prescription and diagnosis are now necessary. The vet now must report the horse’s identity and a diagnosis to the commission. Trainers likewise must also report use to the commission. The drug previously carried a 2 picogram per milliliter threshold. Now any detectable level is problematic.
  • The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, charged with developing uniform safety and integrity rules for the horse racing industry, has held its first meeting. Charles Scheeler is now chairperson. He is a former federal prosecutor. Some PA racing organizations are opposing the organization and challenging the creation in a lawsuit.
  • Crossing the finish line on a positive note and because it’s graduation season. Brandon Davis, who attends Duquesne University, won the Penn Diversity Scholarship from The Meadows. He will receive a four year $20,000 scholarship. Brandon is the son of Melinda Nearing, a Racing Teller at The Meadows for 36 years.

Lead image via Dreamstime.

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Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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