High stakes between tracks

How slots divide the fortunes of Delaware Park and Pimlico

June 18, 2000

THEY'RE ONLY an 80-minute drive apart, but there's a world of difference between Delaware Park and Pimlico. While both thoroughbred operations struggle to attract fans, Delaware Park has what Pimlico sorely lacks: slot machines.

Two thousand of them sit in a gleaming palace beneath the near-empty grandstand. Ten thousand people a day, on average, visit this gambling mecca. Only two or three hundred people show up on weekdays to follow the horse racing action next door.

At Delaware Park, horses are secondary. Gamblers dream of hitting triple 7s, not the daily double. It's a bonanza for the track's owner.

Pimlico draws a bigger racing crowd, but even on a recent Wednesday when 2,800 show up, the cavernous 14,000-seat track seems empty.

At Pimlico -- famed for the Preakness Stakes -- you won't find slots or other gambling. That's both good and bad.

It means the focus is exclusively on the majestic thoroughbreds that make Maryland racing world-famous. But the lack of slots also means Pimlico has no big profit-generator to offset high racetrack costs.

Unless Pimlico's owners come up with ways to bridge this gap, the track's ability to compete head-to-head with Delaware Park in the spring will be increasingly compromised.

On this, the last day of Pimlico's meet, tour the two tracks with us to see how far Delaware Park has come -- and how much Pimlico must do to catch up.

It's easy to miss the turn-off for Delaware Park Racetrack and Slots. The modest sign at the entrance road is in keeping with the understated tone of the facility.

Though it sits close to Interstate 95, 10 miles this side of Wilmington, there's a rustic feel to these 750 acres. A long, tree-lined road with manicured grass and dark-green stables among the rolling hills greets visitors.

Parking's free, whether you're headed to the 78,000-square-foot slots area or looking for four-legged excitement.

Just walk in: There's no admission charge. Except for reserved seats and a gourmet dining room, there's no "clubhouse" either. You get to roam around.

Few people take advantage of this egalitarian concept.

Slots players rarely leave their machines long enough to notice thoroughbreds galloping down the stretch. Doors leading to the 7,500-seat grandstand are just steps away, but they're rarely opened. Outside, the vast grandstand is nearly deserted.

At the racing end of the building, a few dozen fans wander outdoors to view horses at post time, then filter back inside.

There, they join 200 to 300 handicappers. This is bare-bones racetrack dM-icor: Fresh paint can't conceal the air-conditioning ducts and plumbing lines overhead or the dim lighting.

But who's looking? Eyes are fixed on rows of small television monitors broadcasting races from other tracks. Simulcasting provides the action -- and the money -- in today's racing world.

Chairs and tables face banks of monitors. The crowd is elderly, white and male, favoring cigars.

Some pause to glance out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the paddock. No wonder.

It's a mini-park, with tall shade trees, picnic tables and plenty of room to size up the horses as they're saddled for the next race.

Racing here resembles a friendly, small-time track where part of the fun is enjoying the sylvan setting.

The food is good. You can pick from nine eateries, where an oversized turkey sandwich will run you $6.95; a crab melt, $10.95.

Still, the atmosphere inside isn't uplifting. Too quiet for a racetrack.

If you want noise, wander over to the slots area. Thick carpets with vibrant colors, bright lighting and lots of noises from the slot-machine bells. What a difference.

Last year, Delaware Park's gross from "video lottery terminals" topped $100 million. Even after expenses to keep the slots running 18 hours a day, seven days a week (except for Easter and Christmas), a fat profit remains.

Some of it goes toward racing purses. That's why the caliber of horses running at Delaware Park is respectable. Weekday purses usually exceed Pimlico's.

This explains the large number of horses in most races. No short fields, as often happens at Pimlico.

What's missing are racing fans.

In this enterprise, the tail now wags the dog: Delaware Park, built by an elite group that included William DuPont Jr., opened in 1937. But the onetime showcase closed in 1982. It reopened two years later on weekends, then barely survived until slots arrived in 1996.

Now horse racing is heavily dependent upon slots players, many of whom drive in from Maryland.

In the first five months of 2000, they poured $1.4 billion into those machines. The racetrack's cut: more than $51 million.

When Delaware Park promotes itself as "the ultimate entertainment experience in the Delaware Valley," it isn't referring to horse races, but to the popularity of its 2,000 slot machines.

Horses still rule at Baltimore's thoroughbred oval. There aren't any diversions.

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