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Harrah's Chester returns harness racing to the Delaware Valley

by Terry Conway

As a kid Brian Roland remembers the thrill of traveling to the Brandywine Raceway with his father, a standardbred trainer.

"There would be 15,000 people on a Saturday night," recalled Roland, now a trainer and resident of Jennersville, Pa. "They had terrific horses, large purses. It was a fun place to be. Then it all vanished."

The sport disappeared in the Delaware Valley when first Liberty Bell, then Brandywine and finally Garden State Park were shuttered over the past 20 years.

Roland is betting the good times are back. Chester Casino & Racetrack launched a new era in harness racing in the Delaware Valley on September 10. Hall of Famer Carl Manzi, driving Silver Flash, won the first official race.

Located on 64 acres of the long abandoned Sun Shipbuilding & Dry Dock facility, the track offers sparkling views of ships and tankers passing by on the Delaware River. It is the first racetrack to open in Pennsylvania since Philadelphia Park in 1974.

But Harrah's Chester is much more than harness racing. The world's largest casino company is building a posh $430 million (including a $50 million licensing fee) entertainment complex that will house 2,750 slot machines when it's fully operational on January 16.

First Track

Harrah's Chester is expected to be the first track to offer slot machine gambling as a result of the 2004 slots law that legalized machines at racetracks, resorts, and stand-alone casinos. Seven of those licenses are reserved for racetracks.

Live racing at the Chester track is set for Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays during its inaugural 45-day meet that runs through Dec. 18. Mostly a nighttime sport, the track is operating during the afternoon, so that the facility can eventually cater to the throngs of slot players in the evenings.

Mike Tanner, the track's director of racing operations, pegged daily purses at $70,000 this fall. Twelve percent of slots revenues are earmarked for harness purses. Harrah's Chester purses are expected to soar to upwards of $200,000 as the slots money begins to pour in. It also offers upwards of 35 simulcast signals from the nation's top thoroughbred and harness racing tracks from noon until midnight every day.

The track's designers worked around challenges left behind by the massive shipbuilding operations. The first turn of the 5/8-mile track rests on a newly built $12 million bridge. Designed like a freeway style overpass, the bridge sits atop the former wet docks on the river where work was completed on ships after they were launched.

An all weather dust-stone track is so close to the water's edge that the horsemen could easily toss their whips into the river. At the southern entrance horses are vanned to a sprawling, pristine 131-stable paddock building that also includes a second-floor drivers' lounge and outdoor deck where horsemen can watch the races.

Trainer Sam Beegle, who operates a training center near New Holland, Pa, said having a harness track in his "backyard" has been a long time coming.

New Owners

"A lot of owners here dropped out after those tracks closed," said Beegle, in the standardbred business for 36 years. "With the projected increases in purses, you'll see a big resurgence. More and more Pennsylvania owners will get involved in the sport."

In 2007 the track will host 75-100 days of live racing with the race meet slated to run from late spring through October. Tanner expects Chester's purses to rival-- if not outpace-- the Meadowlands (NJ), the sport's most lucrative track. Horsemen are salivating.

Roland manages Alsabah Farm in Jennersville where he trains ten standardbred horses. After the region's harness tracks closed, Roland was forced to drive to tracks in the Poconos or southern Maryland.

"The older you get, the long nights are harder on you," admitted Roland, 46. "Now it takes me about 40 minutes to drive to Chester. When I was there for qualifying races Harrah's people were all first-class. Horsemen are very excited about this new venture."

A Dream Evolves

The Chester track started as the dream of Joe Lashinger, a former president of Pocono Downs. He partnered with old law school pal George Miller and Philadelphia developer Kevin Flynn, who zeroed in on the decayed shipbuilding site in Chester. The partners pegged the initial investment at $20 million, but that all changed after Governor Ed Rendell signed the slots legislation in July 2004. The cost of slots licenses shot up to $50 million.

Enter Harrah's, the gambling titan. After more than a year of demolition, cleanup and addressing environmental concerns, construction began in March 2005. Harrah's venture is the first facility in the region built as a joint entertainment venue rather than a track retrofitted for slots such as Delaware Park, Dover Downs and soon Philadelphia Park. (Eventually the Bensalem, PA track will build a casino in its parking lot). There is a 2,600-space high-rise parking garage attached to the facility.

The riverfront facility features a 1,500-seat outdoor grandstand that slopes gently down to track level. A 20,000-square foot deck offers spectators a sweeping view of the river and a birds-eye view of the racing action. Inside there is a spacious simulcast area with betting windows and self-service machines as well as scores of small and large TV screens to accommodate serious horseplayers. There also are food stands and the Copper Mug, a bar with a healthy selection of regional microbrews.

The slots side of the business is a work in progress that will be restricted to the 100,000-square foot upper level that also will house the End Zone Sports Bar and a '50s diner. Eventually, the gambling enterprise will boast six restaurants and a pair of lounges. David Sciocchetti, director of the Chester's Economic Development Authority, said Harrah's Chester is expected to bring in three million visitors annually.

Vince Donlevie, Harrah's Chester's senior vice president and general manager, was born in Chester and grew up in Wallingford, PA. Involved in the gaming industry since 1979, most recently Donlevie has worked with Harrah's in Reno, Nev. and Joliet, Ill.

World-Class

"We're building a world-class facility and teaming it with a wonderful tradition of harness racing in the Delaware Valley," said Donlevie, who has been involved with the Chester project for two years. "The two pieces have to work hand in hand to make it a profitable venture. One thing is for sure, when people hear the name Harrah's they already know it relates to a quality experience."

Donlevie offered no hard revenue projections for the slots but noted that there are six million people in the counties surrounding Philadelphia. Do the math.

"We've got the strength of Harrah's database, the strength of a brand name and distribution," he said. "We will cross promote Chester among all other Harrah's casinos."

Reviving the Industry

The slots money will have a trickle down effect-- adding employees, more purchases of goods and supplies such as feed and equipment and even the replacement of miles of tired, old fences. It will not only revive the horse industry, but also provide the wherewithal to keep horsemen from selling their farms to land developers, preserving the state's agribusiness and open space.

According to a 2003 Penn State University study, the horse industry was responsible for keeping more than a million acres undeveloped. Pennsylvania equine owners devote 1,140,000 acres of land for equine purposes that equates to $8,270,000 in associated assets. The racehorse industry accounts for $1,120,000 of that total. Agriculture is the second largest industry in Pennsylvania, and the horse industry supports other forms of agriculture as a major buyer of feed and other services.

"The racing industry will be the engine driving the whole train," said Ann Swinker, a professor at Penn State's dairy and animal science department. "Land will stay in agricultural use and we'll be getting better equine genetics, so there should be a ripple effect on the hunters, jumpers and pleasure horses. The upswing in breeding will strengthen the whole horse and agriculture industry."

Today there are more than 400 standardbred breeders in the state, a number that should climb in coming years. Some of the premier standardbred farms in the nation are nearby, including Winbak in Middletown, Del. and Hanover Shoe Farm. Located on more than 3,000 acres in rural Adams County, Hanover is the largest winning standardbred horse-breeding farm in the world. Thousands of tourists visit the world-class breeding farm annually, many as part of their historic Gettysburg vacation itinerary.

Hanover's rolling farmland has remained relatively unchanged since the turn of the last century. It's been a world-class breeding establishment for more than eight decades. President Jim Simpson said that newly enriched stakes races will attract horses to Pennsylvania from all over the northeast. He said that the Pennsylvania Breeders Fund— that pays bonuses for horses bred in state— should rocket to $10 million annually.

"This is a pivotal point," Simpson explained. "It will make economic sense to hang on to the farms for future generations, rather than selling off to developers. The slots windfall will have a profound effect on breeding and racing for the standardbred industry."

Harrah's Chester Casino and Racetrack

Where: 35 E. 6th Street in Chester

Directions: From Philadelphia I-95 South to Exit 8 (Ridley Park). Go left at the ramp to Rt. 291. Make right and go about two miles to racetrack entrance.

Racing schedule: Sundays, Monday, Thursdays, first post 12:45 p.m., Sept. 10- Dec. 18. Also Friday, Nov. 24. No racing on Thanksgiving. Free admission and free parking.

Contact: 800-480-8020 or at www.harrahs.com

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