Festive Derby Atmosphere Will Be Missing At Pennsylvania Tracks, As At Churchill Downs

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The normal hoopla surrounding the Kentucky Derby won’t take place at Churchill Downs on its rescheduled date of Sept. 5, and visitors to Pennsylvania’s racinos that Saturday shouldn’t expect any festive atmosphere either.

Racing directors at the six racetrack-casinos said during Tuesday’s conference call meeting of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission that they will discourage large crowds from attending the tracks to watch the derby.

The problem for tracks around Pennsylvania is the same as in Louisville: fears of COVID-19 spread if too many people gather for what is ordinarily a popular social event in May.

Thousands of race fans normally turn out

Joe Wilson, chief operating officer of Parx Racing, said in a normal year, 8,000 to 10,000 people might visit the Bucks County facility to bet on and view the derby as part of a day-long party.

“With the current restrictions, we can’t do any of that,” he said, although the simulcast racebook area will be open. “We don’t have live racing that day, so we’re going to limit capacity in the building. We’re going to arrange it so people can come up, make their bets and leave.”

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Pennsylvania tracks have generally been racing without their grandstands or aprons open to fans since their operations resumed in June.

The Kentucky Derby annually draws up to 170,000 attendees in Louisville, but Churchill Downs Inc. announced last Friday there would be no spectators this year, due to rising COVID cases in Kentucky. That reversed an earlier plan to allow up to 23,000 patrons.

Parx and the other tracks around Pennsylvania that normally have a spillover effect from excitement on horse racing’s biggest day are still finalizing plans for just how they will accommodate race fans without allowing big crowds.

At the Meadows Racetrack & Casino, preparations are being made for “drive-thru wagering,” said Mark Loewe, vice president of racing, without going into specifics.

Eric Johnson, director of racing for Penn National at its track at Hollywood Casino, commented, “We’re planning to have a larger than normal Saturday crowd, but not a normal Kentucky Derby crowd,” with social distancing measures used as needed to spread patrons.

Mixed news on OTBs reopening

Despite a less boisterous derby day than usual, the good news for the state tracks is they report racing has gone on as they hoped over the past two months.

“The live racing product continues to be strong since we came back June 22,” Wilson said of the thoroughbreds at Parx, which has continued live racing throughout August — to make up for down time in the spring — instead of taking a three-week break like it normally would.

He noted that the South Philadelphia Race and Sportsbook has resumed operations after going dark for many months due to COVID concerns, and that will be an additional benefit for the track.

A recently issued report on 2019 racing from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board noted that the sport faces ongoing challenges in attracting handle and spectators, but that OTB parlors in the state could benefit from the addition of sports betting, as the South Philadelphia facility has done.

There’s no sign of any such benefit, however, for the East Stroudsburg OTB facility of the Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono.

While Mohegan Sun added sports betting months ago to its Downs at Lehigh Valley OTB operation in Allentown, it did not do so at the East Stroudsburg site, which has been closed since March.

Dale Rapson, vice president of racing operations for Mohegan Sun, said the East Stroudsburg location won’t be reopening at all at Eagles Glen Mall, due to cost concerns for a property that is now larger than warranted.

He said the site made sense 20 years ago with demands at the time from horse bettors, but now, “the rent and expenses doesn’t make sense. We’re going to try to find another location in Stroudsburg to open up as soon as possible.”

Photo provided by Shutterstock

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Gary Rotstein

Gary is a longtime journalist, having spent three decades covering gambling, state government, and other issues for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in addition to stints as managing editor of the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette and as a reporter for United Press International and the Middletown (Conn.) Press. Contact Gary at gary@usbets.com.

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