Day At The Track

Dawn of new era at Plainridge Park

07:31 AM 25 Jun 2015 NZST
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A ribbon cutting ceremony officially opened the new Plainridge Park Casino Plainridge Park Casino
A ribbon cutting ceremony officially opened the new Plainridge Park Casino
Plainridge Park Casino

Plainville, MA --- Even two tornado warnings and torrential rainfall in the middle of Tuesday’s (June 23) card could not dampen the harness racing horsemen’s spirits on the eve of Wednesday’s (June 24) grand opening ceremonies at the new $250 million Plainridge Park Casino.

“It is tremendously exciting,” said track identifier Bob Lieberman, who has been involved in New England harness racing for 30 years. “We have been reborn, and that is the word for it.”

Only two years ago, the prognosis for Massachusetts’ Standardbred breeding and racing industry was indeed terminal.

After discovering serious improprieties in the way money was handled by a former track executive at what was then Plainridge Racecourse, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission ruled in August 2013 that then-owners were unsuitable to hold a gaming license. The ruling knocked the state’s only harness racing track out of competition for the lucrative license to own and operate Massachusetts’ future sole single slots machine facility.

In the ensuing months Penn National Gaming Inc., the North American casino and racetrack magnate with now more than 20 properties, was also running into dead ends in Massachusetts. PNGI’s attempt to win the full destination resort casino license designated for the state’s western region was outbid by MGM, and then voters in the Town of Tewksbury rejected the corporation’s try to locate a slots parlor there.

In what started as a relationship of convenience but has since blossomed into the perfect marriage, the former owners of Plainridge and executives of PNGI arranged that PNGI would pursue the slots license for the property and then buy the track if successful. When the MGC selected PNGI over two competitors in February 2014, the deal was sealed.

Shovels went into the ground shortly thereafter, and although the state’s gambling legislation mandated a minimum investment of $125 million, PNGI has already put twice that into the project.

On Wednesday (June 24), the glamorous and state-of-the-art Plainridge Park Casino opened its doors at 1 p.m. to an enthusiastic and large crowd.

“The horsemen have been very cooperative since the outset,” said Chris McErlean, PNGI’s vice president of racing, who was on hand for the grand opening. “It’s been rough for them during the construction as they’ve had to endure a lot of inconveniences. The facility and the site came out well, but we have some clean-up projects on the front side and the backside that we’re going to be doing for the rest of this year and going into next year, so it’s a work in progress. Obviously, the horsemen knew this was do-or-die for them. They have been great about everything that has been asked of them and that bodes well for the relationship going forward.”

The same 2011 expanded gambling law that authorized the state’s three resort casinos and one slots machine facility also established the Race Horse Development Fund, which will be fueled by a combined five percent of the four licensing fees totaling $175 million plus nine percent of the slots parlor revenue and .625 percent of the gross gaming revenue from the three future casinos.

The RHDF designates 80 percent to purses, 16 percent to breeders and four percent to backstretch welfare and the total allotment will be split 75-25 percent between the state’s Thoroughbred industry and Standardbred industry.

Harness horsemen are already seeing the benefits.

Plainridge offered $38,300 in purses on Tuesday’s 10-race card. As recently as 2013, the average purse was $2,700 and last year they averaged $30,000 but were overpaid by $900,000. McErlean said that plans to upgrade the racing quality call for the eventual creation of a signature event and the restoration of the Bert Beckwith and Stan Bergstein series.

“It’s been a bumpy, hilly road with a lot of downs but we finally got here,” said trainer/driver Jim Hardy, who has topped the Plainridge standings nine straight years. “People were losing their homes and farms and getting out of the business. There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

That light is shining brightly.

“We can already see the benefits of the new casino, absolutely. I’ve already picked up two new owners coming into the business and have new horses coming into the barn,” Hardy said. “I last bred a filly two years ago but now I have the incentive to breed more. We’ve already turned $3,000 claimers into $4,000 claimers and purses can only go up. It’s all positive.”

Lisa Watson, the wife of driver Wallace Watson, is an owner, trainer and breeder who has been racing at Plainridge since it opened in 1999. Although the Watsons are based in Maine, where PNGI owns and operates Hollywood Casino and Raceway Bangor, many of their horses prefer the bigger five-eighths-mile track here.

“Without this new casino a lot of people would have been forced out of the business. This is a blessing for us all,” she said.

by Lynne Snierson, for ustrotting.com

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