Pennsylvania Thoroughbred tracks awarded 348 programs for 2020

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Nov. 18, 2020

Three Thoroughbred tracks have been approved for a total of 348 racing dates for 2021, down from the 434 requested for 2020.

The Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission approved the submissions at its Nov. 17 meeting. With 472 programs approved for the state’s three Standardbred tracks, the overall total of live racing dates for 2021 is 820.

Parx Racing, which was scheduled for 170 days this year, requested 152 for next year. Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course asked for 96 programs, down from 164. Presque Isle Downs & Casino was approved for its customary number of 100 days.

According to its calendar, Parx will stick with the schedule it has run this year since reopening after the COVID-19 shutdown: racing three days a week on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The meet will begin Jan. 4 and conclude Dec. 19. No weekend racing is scheduled at this time.

Penn National also will stay with its post-shutdown schedule with racing only on Wednesday and Friday evening each week from Jan. 8-Dec. 17. Presque Isle plans to race four days a week (Monday through Thursday) from May 10-Oct. 21.

Joe Wilson, Chief Operating Officer at Parx Racing, said pari-mutuel handle on the track’s races after it resumed racing June 22 was “a little slow at first but kept picking up.” He said the export handle average in October was up 50% from a year ago, and that Parx will “continue with the Monday-through-Wednesday schedule until something substantially changes” regarding COVID-19.

A stakes schedule for 2021 has not been decided. Parx is home to two Grade I events: the Pennsylvania Derby and Cotillion, which were suspended this year because of the virus.

Eric Johnson, Vice President of Racing for Penn National, said running two nights a week with 11 races each card rather than three nights with eight races each program has worked very well for the track and horsemen. It amounts to only two fewer races per week and reduces overhead costs, he said.

“It’s a matter of balancing the systems on both sides,” Johnston said. “Handle has done very well.”

Todd Mostoller, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said because the casino and racetrack were shuttered for almost four months, horsemen “are playing catch-up with purse revenue. We use the first six months of the year to catch up, so it couldn’t have come at a worse time for the purse account. The purse account is not in good shape right now.”

There were discussions of applying for 134 days with eight races each program but the horsemen’s group opted for the submitted schedule. Mostoller said the Pennsylvania HBPA also requested that management add a sixth day of training per week, which is said is “the last thing to resolve.”

“We want to race as many races and race days as we can afford,” Mostoller said. “We intend to add days with our normal revenue from slot machines. We just don’t want to have a purse overpayment.”

The Pennsylvania HBPA also represents horsemen at Presque Isle. Mostoller said the group agrees with the dates request submitted by track owner Churchill Downs Inc. but is awaiting discussions on a “live racing agreement” that expires at the end of 2020.

Purses at Pennsylvania tracks earn roughly 10% of revenue from slot machines at the state’s casinos. Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board statistics for fiscal 2020/21, which began in July, show declines in slots revenue compared with the same period last year in part because of COVID-19 restrictions but also due to substantial growth in the state’s online gaming component. No revenue from online slots play goes to horse racing, nor does revenue from sports betting.