Gambling worlds unite at Del. track Slots, horses attract money from bettors on opening day

April 14, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

STANTON, Del. -- At the opening day of Delaware Park's annual racing meet, the closest some people came to seeing a horse was the neon likeness of one sitting above a bank of slot machines.

As the first race began yesterday under sunny skies and a stiff breeze, hundreds of patrons remained glued to one-armed bandits on the darkened, smoke-filled casino floor beneath the grandstand.

Herbert Wilkerson of Upper Marlboro played the slots for at least four hours and seemed unfazed that he never saw the ponies.

"We've got enough of them back in Maryland," the 66-year-old school bus driver said before getting into his car and heading back home on Interstate 95.

Mr. Wilkerson's comments seemed to sum up the feelings of many slot players on the first day of this unusual marriage of horse racing and casino gambling. The track began operating 715 slots in December and resumed live racing yesterday.

At first glance, the union seems a peaceful and profitable one. The money bet on horse races was a little lower than opening day bets last year, track officials said. They attributed the decline to a lack of advertising, not to horseplayers betting slots.

"You couldn't tell today because the slots are handling as much as they can," said Steve Kallens, the track's marketing director.

Gamblers enjoyed the blinking lights and immediate gratification of mechanized betting without the long drive to Atlantic City, N. J. Warmed by the sunshine, track habitues relaxed and chatted in the grandstand between races as ducks paddled around an infield pond.

"It's two different worlds," said Edward Zabielski Sr., a retired forklift operator from Wilmington, Del., who has attended races at Delaware Park for 50 years. "If you're out here, you don't know there are slot machines in there."

Maryland's horse industry and the state's most powerful politicians are watching Delaware's experiment warily.

Since opening, the slots have been fabulously profitable and some of the proceeds have helped raise purses.

Maryland racing officials say higher purses will siphon off horses from their tracks, irreparably damaging the industry. Delaware Park officials deny that and even some Maryland horsemen have said they don't plan to race here because moving their horses is too much trouble.

During the past legislative session, Maryland track owners asked for 6,000 slot machines to compete with Delaware. The bill failed but is thought to have a better chance of being approved next year.

In the meantime, a few casino gamblers from Maryland continue to make their way to Delaware Park and seem to be having a good time.

Amy Stefhon, 31, a sales representative from Columbia, arrived yesterday morning and was surprised and pleased to learn there would be horse racing, too.

"Is it opening day?" she asked, excitedly. "I've never been to a horse race."

She and a co-worker, Richard Aucoin of Arbutus, played the slots for a while but had trouble finding open machines amid the crowd.

"They're like vultures," Mr. Aucoin said of the other players. "They need more slot machines."

Ms. Stefhon bet on the first race of the day using her wedding anniversary to pick a horse. "I didn't have a clue as to what I was doing," she said.

She won $1.80.

Ms. Stefhon did not fare as well in the casino.

She lost $60 but said she still had fun. "I'd come back as soon as I have another $60 to blow," she said.

Thelma B. Adams, who lives just below the Delaware state line in Freeland and turns 78 today, had better luck.

Wearing a red sweater with sequined playing cards on the front, she arrived about 9: 30 a.m. on the first leg of a birthday gambling trip with her daughter, D. Stacy Fair.

Standing outside the casino holding a plastic bucket filled with quarters, Ms. Adams said she won about $200 in an hour and a half.

She likes horse racing but prefers Delaware Park to Baltimore's thoroughbred track, Pimlico, which held races yesterday.

"I don't feel comfortable parking my car and going into that neighborhood," she said.

Besides the appeal of Delaware's suburban setting is the ambience of the casino.

A cross between an Victorian parlor and a video arcade, it is a collage of neon, flashing lights and burgundy carpet set against oak-paneled walls, mirrored ceiling tiles and chandeliers from an Argentine brothel.

"Beautiful" is how Willie Booker of Owings Mills described it. "They're crazy for not putting it in Baltimore," Mr. Booker said.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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