Why Did The Chickie’s Cross The County? To Open An OTB

Written By Kevin Shelly on July 2, 2021
Oaks OTB Heading to Chickies and Petes

A shuttered off-track betting and sports betting location in suburban Philadelphia for Parx Casino and Racing in the Oaks section of Montgomery County is moving a bit west to Chester County after approval this week by the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission.

The pending move, late this year, means a transformation from a stand-alone betting facility to a smaller operation housed within a planned Chickie’s & Pete’s sports bar and restaurant in the Grove Shopping Center, 10-20 Liberty Boulevard, in East Whiteland Township, near Malvern.

The site needs liquor approval and could open by the end of the year, according to Parx lawyer Mark Stewart.

The company projects 30,000 visitors annually to the betting operation, said Stewart, and at least 14 new employees.

Joe Wilson, the COO of Parx, testified: “We’d like to open several of these.”

“This is what we see as the future,” he added. “Nobody wants to walk into an empty bar. It’s the same way with an OTB.”

What ever came of the contraband raid at Parx?

Meanwhile, what didn’t happen on Tuesday at the monthly race commission meeting was perhaps more notable.

More than a month after a late May raid and investigation, which led to the suspension of notable Parx trainer Richard Vega, there are still no deep details in the public record concerning what was confiscated and labeled “contraband.” There also was no announcement of what, if anything, was found in blood samples for out-of-competition horses tested.

To date, the only public comment in the two months since the dawn raid on barns at Parx was an 80-second summary of the action by commission employee Tom Chuckas, the Thoroughbred Horse Racing Bureau director, during the previous month’s meeting.

Not a single question has been asked or answered in public by commission members. That includes Sal DeBunda, who had in the past used Vega as a trainer for his thoroughbreds.

And PA State Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, the chairman of the racing commission, has said nothing beyond gravely nodding his head when the 80-second account of the investigation was delivered two months back.

Veterinarians who are sometimes critical of the commission, Kathryn Papp and Bryan Langlois, both noted after the meeting the commission’s side-stepping silence.

So, back to OTB…

Model for the future of OTB operations includes sports bars

If successful, that first sports bar/OTB tie-up should become a model for the future of the faltering OTB business. Parx has said so since first applying for racing commission approval this January.

Wilson repeated representations made in the petition. A portion reads:

“The partnership and the OTB relocations will reinvigorate … off-track betting operations, bring a new set of customers to the pari-mutuel wagering industry and increase pari-mutuel wagering revenues. Such partnerships, with the built-in potential new customer base and marketing synergies they offer, represent a viable model for the future of off-track facilities.

“Absent the ability to co-locate facilities and take advantage of such relationships, the OTB concept will face significant challenges and continued closures, as the old model is not sustainable given current patron trends and existing facilities that are too large for the market.”

Approval for sports wagering essentially piggybacks with the okay for OTB operations. A Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board approval of a petition is an administrative formality.

Of course, anyone over the age of 21 with a cell phone can already gamble on sports and racing while visiting Chickie’s & Pete’s, or for that matter, even from the pew of a church, as a Parx representative has previously stated.

However, once the Parx betting operation runs inside the sports bar, the location feature known as geofencing will account for all horse and sports wagers made within the restaurant as revenue generated by the Parx operation, said Wilson.

Overall, PA OTB locations dropped from 23 to just two

PlayPennsylvania first reported the Oaks location had closed permanently last July, just a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic.

At one time, PA boasted 23 operating OTBs.

Now there are just two, one owned by Parx in South Philadelphia and one by the Mohegan Sun Pocono in Lehigh Valley, which offers a sportsbook and OTB at its Allentown location.

Parx had six OTBs but just one now, and it is struggling

While Parx has six OTB licenses, only one location in South Philadelphia is currently in operation.

And it is hurting, and even more so since Live! Casino Philadelphia opened late last year.

Parx’ South Philadelphia Race & Sportsbook, better known as the Turf Club, was hoping for a similar co-location to a nearby Chickie’s & Pete’s, though a recent zoning denial makes that doubtful.

But an appeal by Parx is possible.

The formal written denial was sent out Friday, July 2 to Chickie’s & Pete’s owner, Pete Ciarrocchi. With that document in hand, Parx can proceed with an appeal if it so chooses. A lawyer representing Parx has not returned a request for comment.

Another relocation plan also hung up by zoning

Zoning has also hung up a plan by Parx to relocate a long-shuttered location on 69th Street in Upper Darby to an existing Chickie’s & Pete’s in the Pilgrim Gardens Shopping Center at 5035 Township Line Road in the Drexel Hill section of Upper Darby.

A township zoning official has found that the location does not comply with requirements for an OTB location. An appeal hearing could happen in September. The zoning official has not commented.

Parx already has a Chickie’s & Pete’s within its casino in Bensalem, Bucks County. There is also an OTB within a location in South Jersey, but it is strictly for track wagering, not sports. And Parx plans a Chickie’s & Pete’s with both sports and OTB at its planned mini-casino in Shippensburg.

The last PA track to begin its meet, Presque Isle Downs in Erie, starts racing on July 5.

The horse racing commission’s next meeting is July 27.

Wonder what the odds are for more transparency on the Parx raid and the out-of-competition testing by then?

Kevin Shelly Avatar
Written by
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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