Parx Racing COO Talks Pennsylvania Derby Day Packed With Prestige, Huge Stakes Races and Fun for All

Written By Dave Bontempo on September 23, 2022 - Last Updated on April 10, 2024
Pennsylvania Derby prestige and history keeps Parx Racing fans coming back

For Pennsylvania horse racing fans, this is the ultimate exacta. The synergy between Parx Casino and its horse-racing entity built Saturday’s record-setting showcase.

Parx Racing, bolstered by slot money from the on-site casino, offers more than $4.1 million in purses, dwarfing the entire thoroughbred horse-racing industry.

Parx unfolds two $1 million stakes events in the Cotillion and the Pennsylvania Derby.

A blockbuster undercard for the 2022 Pennsylvania Derby consists of races that would be headliners any other day. It’s a mini-Breeders Cup, with an impact that far exceeds mere numbers.

This is also a vibe. On Saturday, Parx is the heartbeat of horse racing.

Pennsylvania gamblers, whether live or via TVG online horse betting, see the fruits of a gaming-sports dynamic that bolsters both industries.

Parx head saw it come together

Parx Racing COO Joe Wilson started working here in 1982. His varied promotions led him to a position he’s now held for nearly a quarter of a century.

In 2022 — some 40 years after the launch of his Parx association — he reflects upon the emergence of the racing-casino partnership. Wilson saw it progress over the years from a concept into legislation, then construction, and finally as two components of a family.

Ultimately, his track would be able to access casino revenues, matching the strategy that had saved several institutions including nearby Delaware Park outside of Wilmington, De.

When Parx Racing wanted to step up, it could lean on the casino which features 24-hour gaming, more than 3,000 slot machines and an array of table games, poker, sports betting, dining and bars.

A portion of slot revenue was allocated to a horse development fund. And the magic followed.

Money was on hand for when the track made a monumental decision, changing the course of the Pennsylvania Derby in 2010.

Parx COO Joe Wilson on the big move that the Pennsylvania Derby legs

“I couldn’t be more thrilled with what we did,” Wilson told PlayPennsylvania. “The Pennsylvania Derby had been run on Labor Day. That was closing day at Saratoga and at Del Mar and it was not long after the Travers,” (the latter being a Saratoga race with similar pedigree to the Pennsylvania Derby). “We never had really found a place for our race.”

“So, we moved it and once we did, a lot of things changed. We created the Smarty Jones Stakes and ran that on Labor Day. We also had been running the Cotillion in October. Then we decided to package the Cotillion, the Pennsylvania Derby and other races to create one big day in late September.

“The timing of this race is now perfect for us and for the horsemen. We have a high-profile day and the horsemen get a nice final effort for the Breeders’ Cup. Many Pennsylvania Derby horses go right from here and compete in the Breeders’ Cup. (Bayern won the PA Derby in 2014 and the Breeders’ Cup Classic the same year).”

Bayern not only set the Pennsylvania Derby record of 1:46.96 that year, but he beat Kentucky Derby-winning California Chrome.

Parx Racing showcases best 3-year-old thoroughbreds of the year on Saturday

There is a similar buzz this year. No less than six Kentucky Derby graduates are assembled in a wide-open race. They have taken turns beating one another. And here, on Saturday, they stage one of the last two events to determine horse-of-the-year honors. The second will be at the Breeders Cup in November.

“There is a lot for the bettors here because the five major events leading to this has produced five different winners,’’ Wilson said, referring to the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, the Haskell and the Travers.

All five of those races are represented by different participants in this field. It’s the cream of the 3-year-old crop.

And that’s only the main event.

By packaging its big races, the track has produced enormous revenue. Its handle was approximately $14 million for this card last year in what’s termed all-sources revenue. That means every mobile, simulcasting and live-wagering bet has been assembled into one number.

The total is impressive and will be challenged Saturday.

Pennsylvania Derby card brings prestige, race day offers fun for all

Wilson knows that tracks have benefitted from putting their major events on one card. The program represents prestige and draws bettors.

But that doesn’t have to be expensive if the track merely re-allocates pre-determined purse expenditures.

“The first thing that’s considered is the fact that you are going to spend this money on purses throughout the meet anyway,” he said, “so why not package everything together and make it a memorable day?

“What I’m so happy about with this is that the Pennsylvania Derby card is not just for the big guys like the Bob Bafferts of the racing world.”

(The Hall of Fame trainer seeks an unprecedented 4th PA Derby with 5-2 favorite Taiba).

“Everybody gets something out of it. We figure to get 10,000 people here and many have never been to the race track before. There are all the things we have for the kids too. People are going to come out and just have a good time.”

Future customers will be cultivated both for the race track and casino facilities.

Horse racing industry making strides with online betting revolution

The tracks have also benefitted from the newest dynamic, online horse betting. It has the same monumental impact on racing as the Internet did in the business world when it was first introduced.

Wilson said that during the height of Covid, mobile wagering produced about 75% of the betting handle. In many cases, tracks had no choice but to offer remote betting. Covid restrictions prevented them from allowing spectators.

Now that live racing is back, more customers have become comfortable using mobile apps, even when on site.

The resurgence of horse racing, and its intersection with the app that also connects gamblers to sportsbook wagering, also revisits a thorny industry issue.

Customers complain, loudly, about excessive takeout percentage. Exotic wagers at many locations approach 25%, far more than the 10% vig they would pay for a sports bet.

“It is something we are all aware of now that people can wager on the Phillies, the Eagles or anyone else in the sports world and see the comparison,” Wilson said. “I don’t know what the answer is. Now that they have tried Fixed Odds in New Jersey, I think that’s going to be big help for players as it becomes more common.”

Wilson said Parx has adjusted to the market, however, lowering its Win-Place-Show wagers to 17% (which is reasonable) and its Philly Big 5 to 15% (which is good), trying to compete.

PA horse bettors obtain an added incentive Saturday

The track begins its program with a carryover of $102,129 for the Pick 5 and there is a mandatory payout. Several hundred thousand dollars will be added to that total, if last year’s $900,000 pool from a $150,000 carryover is any indication.

Bettors will gain one more benefit with a local twist.

B Dawk, a long shot in the Pennsylvania Derby, is named for none other than Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins.

According to Wilson, Dawkins will be in attendance on Saturday, saying “Riders Up” to the field just before the big race.

An Eagles flashback. It’s just one more example of the day’s high profile.

The house will be rockin’.

Pennsylvania in general, and Bensalem in particular, has something to be proud of.

Lead image: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

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Dave Bontempo

Dave Bontempo, a multiple national award-winning boxing commentator and writer, authors NFL betting columns for the Press of Atlantic City and IGaming Player, among others. He writes significantly about the emerging world of legal New Jersey sports betting.

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