The 15th anniversary of legal gambling in Pennsylvania comes on Sept. 10. However, it’s not at a casino, but at a harness track. Harrah’s Philadelphia Racetrack opened in 2006 which led to the expansion of the property to include the casino and other amenities.
The better-known 15th gambling anniversary and location, Mount Airy Casino, came a month later, in October of 2007.
For now, we’ll concentrate on the location for the launch for the first fruit from the Pennsylvania Racehorse Development and Gaming Act, Act 71 – an improbably located harness track built on a brownfield partially jutting over the Delaware River and tethered to a casino – a racino.
What’s a racino?
As a United Press International story once asked and answered:
“What the hell is a racino?
“Depending on whom you talk to, it’s either a racetrack with slot machines on the premises, an entertainment complex featuring casino gambling and horse racing, or a mutant scheme by horse racing men to put one over on the government.”
While seldom discussed today, the linkage between tracks and casinos is right there in the title of the enabling gambling legislation, which places the ponies in front of casinos. That’s what’s called horsetrading of the political sort.
As the UPI story quipped:
“If you have slot machines, you don’t really have a race track anymore. You have slot machines that happen to be located in a place where horses run in circles.”
Bolstering the fading, but still politically strong horse racing industry in PA, the compromise legislation that created casinos also props up the ailing horse industry. About 10% of all land-based casino slot revenue is earmarked to support the PA horse racing business.
Attempts by Gov. Tom Wolf to redirect the money two years running were non-finishers.
As a result of the casino legislation, the Commonwealth has six tracks tied to casinos:
- Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack – Harness
- The Meadows Racetrack and Casino – Harness
- Mohegan Sun Pocono – Harness
- Presque Isle Downs – Thoroughbred
- Penn National Racecourse – Thoroughbred
- Parx Racing – Thoroughbred
All but Harrah’s and Presque Isle were pre-existing tracks built before casinos were approved.
Harness racing at Harrah’s
The harness racing track linked to the casino now known as Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack was the first new location. Racing had previously existed at four tracks.
The location opened as Harrah’s Chester, named after the suburban city below Philadelphia where it is located. The connected casino opened five months later, on January 22, 2007.
Both the track and casino are on a cleaned-up 64-acre brownfields site left when shipbuilding closed down for good in 1989.
Improbably, ships were once built where the track and casino sit, explaining why one turn partially juts over a former wet dock on the Delaware River. Tankers are often visible beyond the backstretch.
Horse racing has Philadelphia roots going back to the 1750s.
Before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Philadelphia’s Race Street – get it, race street? – hosted a track. Hambletonian, the foundational sire for many harness horses, came to America through the port of Philadelphia in 1797.
Chester welcomed the track and casino
Unlike some proposed gambling locations, Chester embraced the plan for a casino with a racetrack and the infusion of jobs and revenue which came with it, the New York Times reported while the track was still under construction.
The city’s current mayor, Thaddeus Kirkland, warmly praised Harrah’s at a recent Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) hearing.
Harrah’s 15th anniversary celebrations
Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack plans a celebration on Sept. 10, kicking off at 6:30 p.m. and running to 11 p.m. It’s been years since the track held races under the lights.
Live music, a DJ, and entertainment are part of the celebration. While the 15 Years of Racing Celebration is an all-ages event, age regulations for gaming are still in place. The legal age for racing is 18+ and casino gaming is 21+.
“Crazy” to plan a track on that site
Sam Beegle of the Pennsylvania Harness Horseman’s Association (PHHA) saw the industrial location before transforming to a track before Harrah’s had bought it.
On that visit, he recalls thinking,”They’re crazy.”
He chuckles about how wrong he was about the track.
The casino architect called the site ghostlike
The casino was designed by Kim McCarron of SOSH Architects, a well-known Atlantic City firm.
“It had a ghostlike quality to it,” McCarron, the project architect, told the New York Times. “You could just picture what had been there.”
One of only two tracks in the world partially over water
The stone dust track was designed by Daniel Charles Coon, whose Lexington, KY business specializes in horse ovals.
He designed a track in Sydney, Australia is likewise partially over the water left from the shipyard’s wet dock. The bridge-like deck supported by many pilings is 350 feet long.
As he said to the Times before the track opened, “I can’t think of a racetrack where you look out over the backstretch and see the water. It’s very striking.”
“People smarter than me” came up with the deck when Harrah’s decided to stretch a half-mile track to the 5/8 length, Coon said during a recent interview with PlayPennsylvania.
He’s been back to admire the work, a “decent facility that is kept up.”
Brown directs racing at Harrah’s
Barry Brown opened the track for Harrah’s and has served as its only Director of Racing Operations.
“I loved racing,” the 55-year-old Brown recalled of his young self.
Brown, who now lives in Cherry Hill, NJ, grew up around racing at Aqueduct in New York. He went to the University of Arizona’s unique horse racing management program and then on to Freehold, a harness track in northern NJ.
Networking led him to both his career path and work. He spoke with Annie Allman, then of Harrah’s, and now the leader of the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia for more than a year before joining Harrah’s in June of 2006. She’s the daughter of an Alaskan fisherman with Ivy league credentials who has led casino and hospitality ventures and marketed for Comcast.
“Knowing good people is part of career growth,” he said of Allman and others who have helped him.
He remembers needing to wear a hard hat to walk the track due to the ongoing construction.
The opening night for the track drew 10,000 fans, “the largest crowd we ever had or ever will have.” There were 10 races. He remembers, “an awesome evening of racing.”
“It was an event,” he said, so big staff from Harrah’s track in Louisiana came in to assist.
He’s not expecting a repeat for the anniversary, but he does predict a good time.
Even if you can’t attend, you can still place a wager.
Racing continues at Harrah’s until the day after Christmas.
Lead image of Barry Brown, Director of Racing Operations at Harrah’s Philadelphia, by Kevin Shelly.