On a muggy Monday afternoon this month, jockeys at Delaware Park Racetrack & Slots near Wilmington, Del., guided their horses on the dirt track, meandering toward the starting gate for the third race.
Grandstands with thousands of seats were largely empty. Section after section had a single spectator, or two, sometimes three.
The truth is, on this day and on many days during the racing season the thousands of seats are not really for sitting. They're a glorified roof for what's beneath the grandstands: 2,000 slot machines.
Even on a weekday afternoon, some rows of slot machines were fully occupied, mostly gray-haired customers sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. In contrast to the swelter outside, gamblers enjoyed the comfort of air conditioning and clean, carpeted floors. They fed the machines, watching the wheels spin and jar to a stop, or the video poker cards reveal themselves.
The exterior of the facility doesn't sport the grandeur of casinos in Atlantic City or Las Vegas, doesn't inspire the visual awe and excitement. But to the casual observer, the slots atmosphere inside is identical: warbling one-armed bandits, the fwit, fwit, fwit of video cards turning over, the
machine-gun ching-ching-ching-ching of a gambler cashing out winnings, coins hitting metal tray.
Delaware Park is a leader in the fast-growing industry of racetrack casinos, or racinos. Through the first six months of this year, gamblers dropped about $1.5 billion into Delaware Park slot machines $4,200 per machine per day. After paying out winnings, the facility cleared $117 million on slots alone for half a year.
It's that kind of money that has developers scurrying to plan racetrack casinos in Pennsylvania.
Locally, a $400 million horse track with slot machines is proposed for farmland off Route 33 between Easton and Nazareth.
Developers of the Palmer Township project, dubbed Freedom Park, are different from many others. Backed by a horse racing association, they say they care more about racing than slots. Even so, it's the slot machines, up to 3,000 of them, that would provide the money to make it possible.
Big money is also why Pennsylvania legislators are thinking about legalizing gaming. The House and Senate have passed separate bills, and a compromise could be considered as early as this week.
Oddsmakers in the Legislature are betting slots will become legal.
Legislators may not be able to resist a quick fix taking a cut of racetrack casino profits to pay for a $1 billion local property tax cut. In Delaware, which has three racinos, the state's 35 percent share of slot profits last year totaled a cool $201 million.
Pennsylvania's windfall figures to be much more. The state would be taking its cut from more racinos with more slot machines in each one.
For the Palmer Township plan to go from long shot to reality, lawmakers need to approve slot-machine gambling. Then the Lehigh Valley project would have to be chosen from a pool of eight applicants as a site for a new thoroughbred racetrack-casino.
Such a combined racetrack and casino has never been built from scratch in America, at least according to about a dozen experts who couldn't think of one. Elsewhere, slots were added to existing horse tracks.
Slots breed controversy
Adding more horse racing tracks is a relatively uncontentious issue, but introducing slot-machine gambling in Pennsylvania and other states has been a divisive one.
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