09/23/2014 12:36PM

Jerardi: Mission accomplished for Pennsylvania Derby Day

Barbara D. Livingston
Given just about a month to get ready, Parx management had a plan for parking, concessions, security, and everything else.

When you have been going to a track for 30 years, you get a sense of what can and cannot be accomplished. I admit to being skeptical that last Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby/Cotillion/California Chrome card at Parx Racing would be customer friendly. I was concerned that the place would be overrun, that bets would be missed, that food would be hard to find, that security would be overzealous. I was wrong about every one of my concerns.

Given just about a month to get ready, management had a plan for parking, concessions, security, and everything else. And it all worked. Yes, it was crowded, but it was never uncomfortable. The fifth floor, which has been closed, was opened. Half of the first floor, which has been closed, was opened. The picnic area helped spread the crowd out.

There is no way to know how many people were in the facility, which shares vast parking lots with Parx Casino. There is no admission at the track and, to management’s credit, they did not charge Saturday even knowing they had an attraction fans would pay for. They stayed loyal to their regulars and attracted thousands of people who had never visited the track.

As California Chrome hit the paddock and then walking ring for the Pennsylvania Derby, fans were sitting on stairs that probably had not seen a foot in years. And nobody told them they couldn’t. The fans were determined to have fun, and nobody was stopping them.

My best guess is that there were twice as many people as come to a typical Pennsylvania Derby Day. Again, I have no idea what that number is, and anybody who says they do is making it up. You could look at program sales, but I am not sure how good a gauge that is.

“I thought everybody had a great time,” said Joe Wilson, the track’s chief operating officer. “We were servicing people very well. You need to be able to make a bet, watch the race, get something to eat, get something to drink, and use the restroom. We pulled that off without a doubt.”

Wilson hired a parking company, and “they were just efficiently parking our entire lot to keep both businesses running.”

The parking overflow went to a nearby field with the fans bused to the main entrance.

“That was the whole key, not to jam up the parking lot and having traffic backing up on Street Road and stuff,” Wilson said. “We had no issues.”

In fact, it actually appeared a few more thousand could have been in the house with no problems. The fans could park, move around, find a spot to hang, bet, and eat.

Really, the day’s only downer was California Chrome finishing sixth, but horse racing rarely does happy endings. Other than that, there was nothing not to like about the biggest day in the history of Pennsylvania racing.

When management decided to move the Pennsylvania Derby to later in September, start a bonus system, and couple the track’s signature race with the Cotillion Stakes to make it an “event,” a day like Saturday was the goal. Wilson said earlier in the week that he even thought they could get $10 million in handle. That seemed optimistic, but he was right about that, too.

The total handle was $10,396,671, 88 percent more than on the same card in 2013. The Pennsylvania Derby got more than $3 million in bets, nearly three times 2013. Nearly $1 million was bet at the track on the 13 Parx races. The power of a Kentucky Derby winner at your track was never more evident.

In 2011, the Belmont Stakes winner ran in the Pennsylvania Derby. The Travers winners ran in 2012 and 2013. This year, it was the Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner and the Haskell winner. The idea was simple: Make the day a significant part of the racing calendar. Done.