Presque Isle Downs set for inaugural meet

Quick now, and no peeking: which four American tracks are offering the most purse money for upcoming Labor Day weekend races?

If you said Saratoga, Del Mar, Philadelphia Park and Presque Isle Downs, proceed to the head of the slot machine line.

The renaissance of Pennsylvania horse racing shifts into a higher gear with Saturday's opening of Presque Isle Downs and Monday's $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Philadelphia Park, the richest race ever run in the state.

As recently as four years ago, racing in Pennsylvania was moribund. But in July 2004, slot machines were legalized for up to 14 locations in the state -- seven racetracks, five slots parlors and two resorts. The first slots were powered up in November 2006, and are now operational at five tracks, including Philadelphia Park and Presque Isle Downs. In less than a year, $5 billion has already been wagered on slots, and that will be the tip of a gaming iceberg; Pennsylvania has authorized up to 61,000 slot machines, more than any state except Nevada.

Casino gaming is typically racing's toughest competitor. But where the two exist hand-in-hand, horse racing receives a financial windfall that is often out of kilter with the status of the track involved.

In Pennsylvania, 12 percent of racetrack slots revenue is set aside for racing: 9.6 percent goes to purses, 1.92 percent to breeder awards and 0.48 percent to a fund for health insurance for jockeys. When slots parlors and resorts are opened, they will also contribute a smaller percentage to racing.

And that huge influx of money is just beginning to revitalize the sport.

The new Presque Isle Downs is located in Erie, Pa., previous site of failed racetrack Commodore Downs, which opened in 1973 and under the name of Erie Downs went under for good in 1986 after an uneventful existence.

The former Commodore Downs site is now a business park, located about seven miles from the Presque Isle property.

But according to Ted Arneault, CEO of Presque Isle parent company MTR Gaming Group, comparing Presque Isle Downs to old Commodore Downs is like comparing a roadside diner to a fancy restaurant.

"It's light years different," Arneault said.

Commodore Downs struggled with cheap horses and low purses, unable to gain a foothold. But Presque Isle Downs has bankrolled $90 million in total revenue since its 2,000 slot machines went online Feb. 28, and plans to pay out about $500,000 per day in purses the next month -- a higher daily purse distribution than all but a handful of major American tracks.

The published purses are actually slightly less than $300,000 daily, about what the track expects to offer next year during a 100-day season. But for this shorter inaugural meeting, the track is adding a 75 percent supplement to purses.

As a result, Saturday's opening-day card at Presque Isle includes horses trained by Steve Asmussen, Kiaran McLaughlin, Scott Lake, Graham Motion, Tom Amoss, Wayne Catalano, Steve Klesaris, Dallas Stewart and even Dale Baird, the West Virginia legend who has saddled more winners than any other trainer in history.

The signature race will be the Presque Isle Downs Masters Stakes, a $400,000 sprint on Sept. 15, intended as a prep for the new $1 million Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.

The track oval itself is also getting much attention. Horses will run over Tapeta Footings, a synthetic surface pioneered by famed trainer Michael Dickinson, whose decades-long work with synthetic dirt tracks has influenced other brands such as Polytrack. Tapeta is also being installed at Golden Gate near San Francisco, and Dickinson insists his product -- a version of which he has long employed to prepare horses at his Tapeta Farm in Maryland -- is superior to other synthetics currently in use.

Although not mentioning design problems at Gulfstream Park specifically, Arneault also pointed out that Presque Isle has been constructed with the purpose of creating good viewing of races as well as maximizing slot revenue.

"And obviously, the slots enable us to offer a full range of entertainment, now only enhanced by racing," Arneault said.

MTR Gaming Group is a publicly-traded company that also operates Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort in Chester, W.Va., about a three-hour drive from Erie. Mountaineer is another hugely profitable slots operation, and table games will soon be added there.

The expansion of MTR Gaming into the Pennsylvania market was motivated by the desire to make money for shareholders, but also as a hedge against any negative effect Pennsylvania gaming might have on business at Mountaineer. Arneault said the Presque Isle project began on the drawing board about five years ago, in anticipation that neighboring states such as Pennsylvania would try to emulate West Virginia's slots success. MTR, which has also operated Binion's in Las Vegas as well as properties in several other states, then ran through the political minefields of obtaining a gaming license in Pennsylvania.

Presque Isle's slots operation is already thriving. But whether horse racing in Erie ever becomes more than an expensive sideshow depends on the long-term response of horsemen and bettors.

For this inaugural meet, Asmussen, trainer of Preakness winner Curlin, has sent 30 other horses.

He admits to "extreme curiosity," but adds, "I don't know what to expect."

At least for now, Asmussen is using a new track to practice a time-honored racing tradition: he is following the money.

Several Pennsylvania racing leaders interviewed by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review are expecting Asmussen and others like him to return next year as well.

"I seriously think Pennsylvania is poised to be a premier state in the horse racing industry," said Melinda M. Tucker, director of racetrack gambling for the state's Gaming Control Board.

"Our mission is to move Pennsylvania to the pinnacle of racing in North America," said Todd Mostoller, executive director of Pennsylvania Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "If we don't use this to better our racing product, shame on us. The thoroughbred industry is a broken business model. We have an opportunity to fix it. That's what we need to do."

Arneault cites the importance of MTR's experience at Mountaineer Race Track.

"We already have the purses, and because of Mountaineer we also have a great relationship with horsemen in the tri-state area of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia," he said. "They know the product we can produce. And that is why this will work.

"This is the final part of a long process that has been arduous. But it's also exciting, because this is going to be a major event here. The racetrack is being embraced by the entire area, but I don't think people really realize the full extent of what they're going to see.

"Erie is a town waiting for something to happen, and we're going to give it to them."

Randy Moss has been the lead analyst for ESPN/ABC Sports thoroughbred racing coverage since 1999.