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Chester Downs awarded harness-racing license

| Friday, April 4, 2003

Pennsylvania's Harness Racing Commission awarded one of the state's last three racing licenses to the proposed Chester Downs track on Thursday, despite Gov. Ed Rendell's request that it be weighed against other applications piled up in anticipation of slot machine gambling at the tracks being legalized.

The action leaves only two unclaimed track licenses -- the harness-racing license and one thoroughbred-racing license that will be awarded by the state Horse Racing Commission -- as Rendell lobbies for passage of his plan to allow as many as 24,000 slot machines at eight tracks.

At a special meeting in Harrisburg yesterday, the commission voted 2-1 to approve the $20 million Chester Downs & Marina proposal, which had been promoted by the Delaware County Redevelopment Authority, and then approved new rules for the pool of applicants to compete for the remaining harness-racing license.

Rendell called the dual actions "paradoxical" and said he was disappointed that the commission approved the Chester Downs facility separately. Still, he said he supports the track for the economic benefits it would bring to one of the state's poorest cities.

"There's no area of the state that needs it more than Chester," he said.

The action leaves four companies vying for the remaining harness-racing license.

They include Vorum Racing of Washington County, which wants to open a track in Canton, and Centaur Pennsylvania LLC, which has applied to operate a track on Route 51 in South Beaver, Beaver County.

The other two are Penn National Gaming of Wyomissing, Berks County, and Pacers and Trotters, which wants to build a track in the shipyards area of Philadelphia.

Under the new rules adopted by the harness commission -- and expected to be adopted by the thoroughbred commission -- applicants will get 60 days to finalize their applications and be considered for a license, said Anton Leppler, executive secretary of the harness commission.

Leppler said he could not explain why the commission chose to exempt Chester Downs from the new rules, and attempts to reach the commission members were unsuccessful.

Besides the newly authorized Chester facility, the state has two other harness tracks -- The Meadows in Washington County and Pocono Downs in northeastern Pennsylvania.

There are two thoroughbred tracks -- Philadelphia Park in Bensalem and Penn National Race Course in Grantville, near Harrisburg. In September, a thoroughbred license was issued to a subsidiary of Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort, of Chester, W.Va., to build a track near Erie.

Rendell said the approval of the harness track in Chester effectively spiked an application by Greenwood Racing Inc., which operates Philadelphia Park, to open a thoroughbred track called Seaport Park in Chester.

"Obviously, Chester isn't going to get two" tracks, he said.

If that is the case, it means four of the five remaining companies still in the running for a thoroughbred license are from southwestern Pennsylvania.

They are: 1935 Inc. of White Oak, which wants to build a track in South Versailles; MEC, Findlay, owners of The Meadows, who want to build in Findlay near Pittsburgh International Airport; Pittsburgh Development Group, which wants to build a track on a hilltop between the South Side and Hays; and Western Pennsylvania Racing Associates LLC of Big Beaver, which wants to open a track in Beaver County near the Turnpike.

The other company is Horsemen's Group, whose owners want to build a track in the Philadelphia area.

Rendell estimates that his plan to legalize slots and tax track owners' profits would generate $300 million next year and nearly $800 million a year by 2006 to help finance reductions in local property taxes and increases in public school subsidies.

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