Ever been to Erie? Thought so. Well, plenty of talented thoroughbreds will be rolling into the northwest Pennsylvania city this month to run for some staggering purses.
Consider this: the hallowed racetracks of Saratoga, Del Mar and Keeneland pay out the largest prize monies of tracks in America, averaging more than $500,000 a day.
Erie’s Presque Isle Downs joined their elite ranks when it launched its inaugural season last weekend. Set hard in the Rust Belt, Erie had failed to support even a bottom-tier racetrack a decade ago. Presque’s month-long meet is paying out $500,000 a day in fat purses for a 25-night race meeting.
So how did this overnight bonanza happen? Cha-ching!
Since the racino opened in February 28, nearly $1 billion has been wagered in Presque’s 2,000 slot machines through Labor Day. Four percent, about $13 million, was earmarked as racing winnings for the horsemen, thus the lofty purses.
Money talks. Presque’s racing secretary received stall applications from more than 200 horsemen, way more than the newly erected barn area - which has 500 regular stalls-- can accommodate.
Presque’s first race was appropriately named the Inaugural Stakes. It was worth $100,000. Ten three-year old fillies shipped to Erie from their training bases in Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, and Oklahoma.
Trainer Steve Klesaris, who has barns at Delaware Park and Fair Hill, showed up with his filly Dicey Girl, who finished fifth.
“I raced at the old Commodore Downs track there 20 years ago,” recalled Klesaris. “It wasn’t very appealing. Today, my owners want a piece of these jackpots.”
First day entries averaged an impressive 9.6 horses per race. It’s a simple equation: the more horses, the better the odds, thus the better the payout for horseplayers.
Track officials reported $460,035 was wagered on opening day at more than 300 simulcast outlets across the country telecasting Presque’s first day of racing. With post time starting at 5:30 p. m., the track is racing in an uncluttered time spot.
Four times Scott Lake has led all U. S. trainers in victories, most recently in 2006 when he notched 528. He splits 100 horses stabled at Delaware Park and Philadelphia Park. Lake has a 24-horse string stabled at Presque.
"The facility looks very nice and the money is fantastic," said Lake, a Harrisburg native. "I don't think you can go wrong here."
Presque Isle Race Track and Casino is owned by MTR Gaming Corp., the owners of Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort in West Virginia. Attracting 6,000 visitors a day, the gaming facility covers an area the size of a football field.
Back on July 27 they purchased Erie County's lone off-track betting site for $7 million from the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority and moved it July 27 to the casino.
"We thought it was going to be a good location - but nobody else did," said Richard Knight, Presque Isle's president. "We thought there was a good market in Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio to draw from."
Fans were reportedly lined five deep around the paddock and winner’s circle during the first few hours of the debut race program that drew an estimated racing crowd of 5,000 to 6,000.
Racing will expand to a 100-day season next year that runs from May through September.
Still, the question remains: will top-tier racing attract new fans on or will it become the typical racino sideshow?
In the meantime, plenty of owners and trainers are adhering to a time-honored racing tradition: they’re following the money.