And They’re Off! Horse Fans Welcome PA Live Racing Back To Penn National And Beyond

Posted on June 22, 2020 - Last Updated on June 21, 2020

Finally, they’re off!

To cheers and clapping from about a hundred frustrated railbird bettors and anxious equine owners, thoroughbred racing in Pennsylvania galloped back to life Friday evening, June 19, at Penn National Race Course.

Four days earlier, trotting horses resurrected PA harness racing at The Meadows Casino and Racetrack on June 15.

Spectators settled for watching at a distance in simulcast areas at both tracks, barred for now from the grandstands.

Still, it was great to be back to live racing.

It’s nice to yell once or twice — or more — at a horse,” said Lancaster resident Bill Patton.

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Racing fans head back to the track

A pony fan for 44 years of his 60 years, Patton had made do with TVG livestreams of horse racing from Australia, which never closed down even at the height of the virus pandemic.

He added:

“I’m glad to watch live. It isn’t the same at home. I’m here!”

And he picked the winner of the first race in the resumed Penn National meet, Fast Intentions (pictured, lead image).

The horse was bred at a nearby equine center, part of a PA-based horse community that provided 23,000 jobs before the virus shutdown.

The question now is how the equine economy will bounce back. For instance, Penn National is racing just two days a week for now.

Better late than never: All but one PA track is back to racing

But overall, the pace of racing in PA has picked up in the past few days.

The Pocono Downs course opened on Saturday, the Harrah’s Philadelphia track on Sunday. Parx Racing opens today, Monday.

Now all but one Keystone track, Presque Isle Downs, is open. And that track has announced a tentative opening of July 20.

PA became the last state in the region to renew live racing, with officials in all neighboring jurisdictions allowing resumption sooner.

In mid-March, PA’s six horse tracks — three thoroughbred and three harness — were shuttered by order of Gov. Tom Wolf as a mitigation measure against the COVID-19 virus.

Chicken-and-egg relationship between racing and casinos

Wolf also closed casinos at the same time. All six tracks are physically linked to specific casinos, and all 12 casinos statewide provide about a 10% cut of their slot revenues to fund racing industry purses and breeding programs.

The funding scheme was a 2004 legislative compromise between rural and urban legislators that led the way for approval of casinos while bolstering horse racing.

The resumption of racing was delayed because the Wolf administration pushed back signing off on health safety racing protocols until June 11, even after agreeing to a framework that otherwise allowed — theoretically — racing to resume as early as June 5.

Though it’s not required by the state, most tracks are waiting to reopen with their respective brick-and-mortar casinos. Penn National was no exception, reopening the same day as Hollywood Casino.

Penn sees a future beyond ponies and brick-and-mortar casinos

One part-owner of a horse stood out Friday before the race.

The Dauphin County man, who did not want his name used, is just 33, about half the age of most of the pony crowd assembled to watch the resumption of racing from the simulcast area.

Unlike most of his peers, he dabbles in casino gambling as well as wagering on horses.

And unlike his older friend and horse co-owner, he not only knew who David Portnoy is, but he has sometimes watched Portnoy on his blog and podcast platform, Barstool Sports. He was even wearing a Barstool T-shirt dedicated to horse racing.

He’s the new target demographic for Penn and Barstool. This fall, Portnoy and Barstool will become the sports betting brand for Penn National at its brick-and-mortar casinos and online.

Back in late January, Penn made a deal to acquire a 36% stake of the often-controversial Barstool brand. Portnoy got $163 million in cash and stock in the agreement.

Penn reopens with a new partner in the works and fewer employees in the future

Then the virus swept the country, walloping Penn’s stock value for a time, even threatening the company’s existence as it tapped credit, sold assets, sold new stock shares, closed expansion projects and furloughed 26,000 employees.

Now Penn is reopening properties across the country, but at least 1,900 employees are facing permanent job losses. The company, headquartered near the racetrack in PA, blames the virus, but the downsizing also coincides with its plan to pivot to become a big presence in the sports betting space.

As the virus crushed casinos, it simultaneously all but closed down sports and sports betting, which is how Portnoy came to livestream himself day trading in stocks. Some think his trades and commentary are enough to have moved the market on some stocks.

The Dauphin County racing fan falls in the demographic that Penn is trying to target with its newfound sports brand. And he says he is looking forward to seeing Barstool at Penn.

No live racing was ‘like solitary confinement’

Richard A. Melzer knew two things growing up in Queens, New York, not far from Aqueduct Racetrack.

First, “I always liked the excitement of horse racing.”

And second, the neighborhood guy with enough money to tip him whenever he washed the fellow’s Cadillac worked in stocks.

Melzer, a securities broker and an old-school standout in a custom-made embroidered shirt showing his personal racing colors and a face mask with horses plunging toward the finish, was jonesing for racing’s resumption last Friday:

“It was like solitary confinement. I was bouncing off the walls.”

Melzer, who owns or co-owns six horses, intently focused on racing resuming, watching the tote board as he spoke. The septuagenarian and horse owner for 14 years said:

“It’s a start, but we need more dates. This is bad for the trainers, bad for jockeys. Other than this year, I have made money.”

His horse in the first race missed the money.

Horse community looking to finish strong in 2020

The entire PA horse community is hoping the fractured season will eventually finish in either place or show, and certainly not out of the money — if not the win they were hoping for in early March.

Out of the money could happen with November’s adoption of a state budget to cover the rest of the fiscal year.

That’s when the Wolf administration might again try to divert the casino slot revenue cut earmarked for horse racing purses and breeding programs. For the PA horse community, it would be another blow in a year that has been full of them.

Lead image c/o Phil Schoenthal, trainer of horse Fast Intentions, via Facebook.

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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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