07/18/2002 11:00PM

Expect no change in odd raceday schedule


STANTON, Del. - The resurgence of Delaware Park has been well documented in recent years, yet a paradox remains. Having descended to near the bottom of the East Coast racing barrel in the 1980's, the track still suffers, in some respects, from the residue of those painful times.

Most top-class circuits - namely, California, New York, and Kentucky - primarily stick to a five-day race week of Wednesday through Sunday. But at Delaware, the schedule is Saturday through Wednesday, which leaves Thursdays and Fridays dark.

This strategy of concession has one primary goal: to avoid being a small simulcast fish during the busy weekdays of Thursday and Friday while becoming a big simulcast fish on Mondays and Tuesdays, when most of the bigger tracks are dark.

"There's not nearly as much competition for the simulcast dollar on Mondays and Tuesdays," said Delaware publicist Chris Sobocinski. "New York OTB makes us their featured signal on Tuesdays, which is a huge windfall for us. Obviously, you can't concede Saturdays and Sundays because those are big 'live' days, and you also can attract meaningful business even with just a small percentage of the large simulcast audiences on those days."

Yet Delaware, having been enriched by ontrack slot-machine revenues, is now an undisputable second in the East in purses. With a track-record per-day average of approximately $275,000, Delaware has a more lucrative purse structure in this region than any jurisdiction except New York.

It seems that No. 2 would not be required to concede anything to anyone and would be able to revert to a more conventional racing schedule, right?

Well, no.

"We've carved out a great niche nationally," said Delaware Park chief operating officer Bill Fasy. If the track went to a Wednesday-to-Sunday schedule, he said, "I don't think we'd do as well as we are now, considering the variety of choices that simulcast fans have. On Monday and Tuesdays, we're the only kid on the block with any good racing, in my opinion. It's something we've cultivated and aren't willing to give up right now."

One factor that goes against Delaware on weekends and busier weekdays is that Delaware's ontrack patrons do not wager as much on imported simulcasts as fans in larger markets. If, for example, the manager of a simulcast facility in Kentucky determines that Monmouth patrons are betting more than Delaware patrons on Kentucky's live racing, then the Monmouth signal may take higher priority at that particular simulcast facility than the Delaware signal. That cycle is then perpetuated elsewhere, with Monmouth attracting more business than Delaware from an untold number of simulcast outlets. Such reciprocal arrangements are commonplace throughout the simulcast industry.

Another variable: the downtrodden image of Delaware from its sadder days may still linger. Horseplayers are creatures of habit, and until the last few years, racing at Delaware had been cheap, unappealing, and often unplayable.

"That's probably part of things," said Fasy, a longtime gaming veteran who has worked at Delaware for nearly six years. "But I've found that if players try us, they like us. I think that's been recognized to a large degree by New York, Las Vegas, and other jurisdictions."

Fasy noted that off-track handle for the first three months of the 1995 Delaware meet was just over $15 million. After three months this year, it was over $78 million.

"The simulcast handle has grown at basically the same rate as purses - quintuple," said Fasy. "That's a pretty fair indicator that if you offer a better quality of racing, you're going to attract the handle to go with it."

Regardless of what days you conduct racing.

A graded question

Although the Delaware Handicap has a prestigious history, a $600,000 purse, and is run at the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles, it is only a Grade 3, perhaps still paying for the 1980's, when the race lost much of its luster.

Fasy long has been annoyed by what he perceives as a slight by the North American Graded Stakes Committee, which has annually declined to upgrade the race. "I guess I've been a poor poker player since I've gotten here," said Fasy. "The graded stakes committee apparently doesn't like the way we play."

Delaware ownership says it's not looking to sell

With Churchill Downs Inc. and the Magna Entertainment Corp. still buying tracks throughout North America, could Delaware Park - which has been owned since June 1983 by the family of William Rickman Sr. - be one of their next targets?

"To the very best of my knowledge, this is a family business and we're committed to Delaware," said Fasy.

"From every indication I have ever had, Mr. Rickman is not looking to sell."

Clearly, legalized slots have made Delaware a far more alluring (not to mention expensive) prospect for acquisition - just as it has made it more alluring for Rickman to keep.

Shippers abound at fesitval

For many horsemen, the Del Cap Festival represents a weekend of transition.

With tracks such as Belmont, Hollywood, and Churchill Downs closing their spring-summer meets, and with Saratoga and Del Mar both set to open Wednesday, this is a time of year when almost everyone and everything in racing is on the move.

That concept is illustrated by the number of shippers in the Del 'Cap Festival. In the Del Cap, for example, only one of the scheduled starters, Your Out, can be considered a local runner. All the others have shipped in and will soon ship out.

Del Cap returns to TV

The Del Cap returns to national cable televison for the first time in more than 15 years.

The race will be broadcast live Sunday on ESPN2 as part of a one-hour telecast that begins at 5 p.m. Eastern. Randy Moss and Jeff Medders will host a program that will include replays of the Kent Breeders' Cup from earlier on the Sunday card, and the Delaware Oaks, and Coaching Club American Oaks from Saturday.