By Dick Jerardi
So, what exactly is going on? That is the question everybody on the Parx backstretch is asking themselves and anybody who will listen.
Gulfstream Park, Tampa Bay Downs and Oaklawn Park never closed. Gulfstream and Oaklawn have casinos that closed, but they kept on racing without fans.
Santa Anita, Churchill Downs, Charles Town and Golden Gate Fields opened last week. Laurel Park is scheduled to open this week. Belmont Park will open in two weeks. The Ohio tracks have been given the green light to open. No fans, but betting and a chance for the stakeholders to earn a living.
It has been proved that it is safe to conduct racing without fans. It is quite understandable why some of the tracks in areas hit hardest by Covid-19 waited the longest. But if they can run at Belmont Park, next to the hardest hit area of the country, there is no reason they can’t run in Pennsylvania.
For some reason, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, who is trying to do a very difficult job under unprecedented circumstances and has always erred on the side of safety, has lumped race tracks in with concert halls and casinos, unable to open until the all clear is given everywhere. Racing, of course, is conducted outside in a huge area. It is a very different setting from casinos and concert halls and the successful models are there for how it can be done safely.
Parx has some specific issues that other tracks with casinos do not have. The purse structure is incredibly dependent on slot machine revenue as mandated by state law. Slot revenue accounts for 85 percent of the purse money at Parx while pari-mutuel handle accounts for 15 percent.
That said, there is money in the purse account from when racing stopped in mid-March. So, even without the Parx casino open, racing could begin again around June 1.
It is unclear when casinos will reopen and the slot machine revenue turned back on. Given social distancing, it is likely even when the Parx casino does open that there will be considerably less slot play. The purses may have to be cut until all the slot play that was there before returns. Trying to predict when that might happen is risky, just like trying to predict anything with Covid-19.
One thing is not debatable: racing can be conducted safely at Parx and the other tracks in the state. Owners, trainers, jockeys and so many other race track workers have been affected negatively by the shutdown. It was a national shared sacrifice that most rational people understood.
But where there is a business that can be safely reopened, there really is no reason not to reopen that business. Horse racing in Pennsylvania is one of those businesses. Hopefully, the powers that be in state government can see what is happening in surrounding states and make it happen here, the sooner the better.