Top Pennsylvania Horse Racing Stories of 2021: Mostly Good With Some Bad and Ugly

Written By Kevin Shelly on December 27, 2021

Pennsylvania horse racing closes out the year 2021 on a largely up note.

The recovery from COVID-19 is mainly on track and brisk betting on the horses during the Pennsylvania Derby set a one-day handle record for the state.

Four tracks are still operating into December as a cherry on top of the recovery. And one has added stakes races.

But there were also dark blots leading to license suspensions for two trainers.

PlayPennsylvania looks back at the highlights and lowlights of PA horse racing in 2021.

Bounce from COVID-19 recovery meant an excellent year for race tracks

The Pennsylvania Derby has long been the highlight for thoroughbreds running in PA, but this year smashed the previous one-day record with pent-up demand and a high-quality field of outstanding horses running.

The total wagering on the 13-race card was $13.2 million, easily eclipsing the prior handle record of $10.3 million set in 2014.

But with a full schedule of racing this year and revenue again flowing from casino slots to horse racing, wagering was also up across the board at the suburban Philadelphia race track.

As BloodHorse reported this fall:

“According to figures released by Parx officials, the daily wagering handle is up by 63.5% from 2019, jumping from $1.59 million to its current state of $2.6 million.”

In a recent follow-up story, BloodHorse said: “In some ways the current atmosphere is better than ever.”

Wolf money grab plan from horse trust dead again, assuring stability

For the second straight year, Gov. Tom Wolf stumbled out of the starting gate with a retread proposal to loot the trust fund of the Race Horse Development Fund, siphoning about $200 million from the racehorse industry in the state. The plan was to create higher education scholarships for students at PA’s state universities.

And while Wolf at least had a legislative sponsor for the 2021 attempt to bite the apple, the sponsor was the first to wave the white flag after the concept resurfaced last February.

By April, State Sen. Wayne Fontana admitted there was no support.

In June, the bill went to a committee with no support from majority party Republicans, leaving it to die. That’s when the blunt-speaking senator even more strongly said:

“It is not gonna happen this year. I don’t see any traction.”

Wolf is a lame duck now, with just one final year as governor. He could make one last-ditch attempt at a money raid in 2022, but the odds are way long. As a result, the horse racing industry feels relatively secure and steady at the close of 2021.

Stability has meant prosperity for horse racing in PA

The good news extended to standardbreds, with the Standardbred Horse Sale returned to the Farm Show complex in Harrisburg this November. The show had decamped to Maryland the year before.

This year’s sales set records.

The week wrapped up with gross total sales of nearly $69.5 million. Horses sold for an average of $54,653, a record and an increase of 11.7% above 2019.

The PA-bred thoroughbred Caravel was sold recently for $500,000 at the Fasig-Tipton, the oldest auction in the US. The four-year-old has run at all of the PA thoroughbred tracks. PA-bred horses can be eligible for enhanced purses.

The grey filly’s sale price exceeded the horse’s career winnings. Celebrity chef Bobby Flay was the majority owner, with trainer and breeder Liz Merryman, who trains in Maryland. Caravel’s buyer is Fergus Galvin, an agent based in Kentucky at Hunter Valley Farm.

Live racing and horse betting in PA to close out 2021

Also positive, four PA tracks are still offering live racing in the final week of the year.

Parx Casino added several stakes races in December, closing with five across Dec. 28 and 29. First post is 12:10 p.m. Three stakes races on Dec. 28 include:

  • $100,000 Kris Kringle for 3-year-olds and up (one mile and 70 yards)
  • $100,000 Mrs. Claus for 3-year-old and up filly and mares (7 furlongs)
  • $100,000 Blitzen for sprinters 3 years and up

Wednesday, Dec. 29 features two juvenile races for two-year-olds:

  • $100,000 Parx Futurity for fillies (7 furlongs)
  • $100,000 Parx Juvenile for colts and geldings (7 furlongs)

Pennsylvanians also have the option of betting horses online at the TVG app. Horseplayers will find the latest live racing schedules with the field and odds at TVG, along with betting information on the runners and their trainers and riders. Sign up with our code LSRTVG for a risk-free first bet up to $300 (losing bet returned in site credits).

Claim your $300 Risk Free Bet at TVG!

On the flip side, two bad moments for racing

During a May meeting of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission, Thoroughbred Horse Racing Bureau director Tom Chuckas said “a significant amount of contraband” was discovered at Parx Racecourse during a raid on the backstretch area.

Parx Hall of Fame trainer, Richard Vega, who has more than 1,000 wins, was suspended as a result of a pre-dawn raid that turned up contraband including an already loaded hypodermic needle.

Similar raids elsewhere at PA tracks came up clean.

Trainer Amber R. Cobb, who used a training barn in South Jersey but formerly ran horses in PA, Delaware and New York, got suspended after a disturbing video showed she abused a two-year-old filly.

Despite some isolated negative press, compared to 2020, PA horse racing appears to be getting back to form.

Lead image credit: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

Kevin Shelly Avatar
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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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