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Treasure Isle

When slots and horse racing met in Pennsylvania, it was a jackpot

ERIE, Pa. - Nobody is calling this "Dreary Erie" anymore.

The new Presque Isle Downs and Casino is a test model for reviving thoroughbred horse racing, which has seen declining attendance for decades.

Presque Isle boasts 2,000 slot machines plus thoroughbred racing on a revolutionary synthetic surface. The track opened Sept. 1 for a 25-date season, offering big league purses averaging more than $450,000 each day.

The casino, which opened Feb. 28, has reaped so much money from slot machines that the track is increasing purses by 175 percent for the short September season. Next year there will be a 100-day racing season, May through September.

Most thoroughbred owners lose money, so the news that nearly $13 million will be distributed in September was met with a giddyup to Western Pennsylvania by some of the top trainers and jockeys. The nation's leading trainer, Steve Asmussen, who handled Preakness winner Curlin, has 30 stalls here, and trainer Scott Lake, second in the standings, has 24. Joe Hampshire Jr., once the leading jockey at both Suffolk Downs and Rockingham Park, loves the place.

"I couldn't be more happy; this place is fabulous," said Hampshire. "Not only is the racetrack phenomenal, but the people you meet at the grocery store are very excited."

It didn't use to be that way here. Commodore Downs, which opened in 1973, averaged meager purses of less than $14,000 per day. The track struggled, closed, and was reborn as Erie Downs. But it died again on Sept. 7, 1987. An industrial park was built in its place.

Then horse owners in the commonwealth hit the jackpot. In July 2004, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law to authorize more slot machines than any state other than Nevada. Six of 11 casinos will be at horse racing facilities. So far this year, more than $5 billion has been dropped into Pennsylvania slots.

With 500 stalls in five huge barns and 500 more to be built in time for next year's 100-day season, Presque Isle is betting heavily that if you build it, they will come.

"There probably wouldn't be a racetrack if we didn't have slots, but there wouldn't be slots if we didn't have a racetrack," said Debbie Howells, director of racing at Presque Isle Downs. "The legislation was to help horse racing."

Under Pennsylvania law, 12 percent of racetrack slots revenue is set aside for horse racing, nearly 10 percent for purses. Last Saturday, they had a $400,000 Presque Isle Downs Cup race and a daily purse of $928,500.

Struggling Suffolk

Veteran Presque Isle Downs publicist Bill Mooney has been at racetracks all around the country. He has a soft spot for Suffolk Downs because he saw the Beatles play there Aug. 18, 1966. "I remember Paul McCartney stepping up to the microphone and saying, 'This is our last song of the night,' and before the crowd could yell too much, he went right into 'Long Tall Sally,' " said Mooney.

With decreased attendance and fewer dates, Suffolk Downs could be playing its own swan song if the Massachusetts legislature doesn't allow it to bring in slots, horsemen have said. New owners, a new ad campaign, and the return of the Massachusetts Handicap have raised hopes. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino envisions a full-scale casino-entertainment center at Suffolk, and Governor Deval Patrick announced Monday that he supports three gaming resorts in Massachusetts.

"We think Suffolk Downs is ideally situated to help the governor achieve his vision of economical development, and we think it can be done in a way that benefits racing, too," said Suffolk Downs chief operating officer Chip Tuttle. "We're going to go the distance."

Lee Struss, the Presque Isle Downs clocker, fondly remembers Suffolk Downs. A former jockey, he won his first race at Suffolk Downs in 1959, aboard Noble Feat. Now he shrugs when he talks about horse racing in Boston.

"I don't know how they survive there," he said. "They've been skating on thin ice for a long time."

Ted Arneault, CEO of Presque Isle Downs's parent company, MTR Gaming Group, agrees.

"I think thoroughbred racing has to be part of a greater entertainment complex," said Arneault. "Otherwise, it is a struggle."

Arneault is sort of the Walt Disney of the racetrack/casino world. He turned a losing facility into the thriving Mountaineer Racetrack and Gaming Resort in Chester, W.Va. Mountaineer was the first track to install video lottery machines, in June 1990, and Arneault was instrumental in bringing slot machines to Mountaineer in 1994. The following year, when Arneault was named CEO, he took the "racino" from a $5.2 million loss to a $34.9 million profit in 2000. Now there are more than 40 racinos in 12 states.

Arneault believes customers are more demanding these days and that combination racetracks/casinos with more amenities are the key to success.

"It's no different than, say, the way football and baseball stadiums have expanded in all the kinds of entertainment they have both during a game and before and after a game," Arneault said.

But won't the market at some point be saturated with gambling?

"They kept saying that about Vegas because of all the different gaming venues, but then they keep building 2,000-, 3,000-room resorts, so I'm not sure exactly where the saturation point is," Arneault said.

"It depends how well you can incorporate it with other entertainment. The business is entertaining people, whether it's thoroughbred racing or fine dining or slots. People have to go to a facility and leave knowing they've had a good time."

Take your pick

Presque Isle Downs held a handicapping seminar its first day and is targeting younger fans. On weekend days, 10,000-15,000 people have visited the $250 million football field-sized casinos, which also offer virtual blackjack. Bettors can dine in an upscale steak house or bet on simulcasts while sitting at huge tables featuring flat-screened monitors and panoramic views of the track.

"We go after the sports guys," said marketing director Jennifer See, who says casino attendance far outnumbers that of the track. Slots are projected to bring in more than 25 times more cash than horse racing.

On a cloudy Monday, eight buses of mostly senior citizens arrive with coupons for free casino money and a meal discount.

Bill Willhansen of Cleveland stands in line waiting for the $10 ham and steak buffet lunch. He wants no part of the horse racing.

"They put too much money into those animals," Willhansen said. "They're too unpredictable, like anything else."

Although the slots and the track are connected, there is little crossover. There is no grandstand seating here, just restaurants and bars.

"Probably anywhere from 5-10 percent of the slot players bet on the horses," said Presque Isle CEO Richard Knight. "Whereas if you look at how many go from the track to the slots it's probably close to zero. We do get some wives of players who come to the casino. That's just the way it is."

The track has drawn an average of 3,664 fans for its first 11 days. That includes the large opening day crowd estimated at more than 15,000. The average daily on-track wagering is $56,907. Races begin at 5:30 p.m., a time that helps off-track simulcast wagering, which averages $552,632 daily.

Turf upgrade

They've done more than just scratch the surface at Presque Isle Downs. It is the first track in the country to install Tapeta, which means "cushion" in Latin. It is a synthetic combination of sand, fiber, rubber, and wax that feels like drier lint with sand on it. It was invented by trainer Michael Dickinson, who won the Breeders' Cup Mile with Da Hoss in 1996 and '98.

"We're the only track in the country that has it, " said Howells. "The horsemen, trainers, and jockeys all love it. It rained all day yesterday and didn't affect it at all. Made it better."

Despite the good reviews for the new surface, tragedy struck on opening day. Cantrel, a horse trained by Lake, broke his ankle in the first race and had to be euthanized. Lake refused to blame the surface, though, telling that Cantrel "took a bad step."

Ted Arneault also defended the surface.

"You've got 1,500-pound animals running around on little ankles," said Arneault. "You can't avoid that and things happen. Certainly the horsemen were pushing for this. It gives Erie a competitive advantage."

Back on the track, a race has just ended. The jockeys hop off their mounts and file back to the paddock as the sun sets. Off in the distance, cars with their headlights on zip east on nearby Route 90, watching the sunset in their rearview mirrors. There are no red lights from here to where the Massachusetts Turnpike ends at Logan Airport, just a few furlongs from Suffolk Downs.

Just mention "Suffolk Downs" to Hampshire, who hails from Wilmington, Mass., and he looks ready to saddle up and ride to East Boston.

"I guess the fate of Suffolk remains to be seen," said Hampshire, happy to talk about home. "The new owner seems to be a good guy but we don't know what the politicians will do.

"But if they brought the slots there, I'd be the first one back."

Massachusetts Handicap
$500,000 thoroughbred race for 3-year-olds and up over 1 1/8 miles.
When: Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
Where: Suffolk Downs
TV, radio: TVG

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