12/16/2015 12:48PM

Mid-Atlantic: Parx officials mull ways to strengthen program

Nikki Sherman
Ramon Preciado is on the verge of winning his second straight Parx training title.

It has been a year of change at Parx Racing, which concludes its 2015 season Tuesday and will not reopen until Feb. 13.

The seven-week break is the result of a June agreement between Parx management and the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association that created a 32-day fall festival centered around Parx’s two $1 million races, the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby and the Grade 1 Cotillion. Overnight purses were doubled during the festival – which ultimately was cut short due to an equine herpesvirus quarantine – and racing dates were reduced to keep the purse fund solvent.

On Monday, the Pennsylvania Racing Commission approved a 154-day schedule for Parx in 2016, approximately 25 percent fewer dates than in recent years.

Sam Elliott is nearing his first anniversary as the director of racing at Parx. Formerly the vice president of racing at Suffolk Downs, he has tackled some difficult issues in his new position and is a proponent of the fall festival and a shorter racing schedule.

“Now that we are starting the reduced schedule, we are in the process of figuring out how we can best deploy purse money to the benefit of everyone involved, whether it’s steady or tiered to different times of the year,” Elliott said. “I would like to see the program strengthen throughout the year.”

Elliott said he believes racing should be transparent, and to that end, he was instrumental in having Juan Carlos Guerrero reinstated as a trainer at Parx. In 2011, Guerrero was banned from running horses at Parx following a charge of sexual harassment. His horses had since raced under the name of his wife, Lisa Guerrero.

Similarly, John McCaslin now is the trainer of record for his horses at Parx. Previously, Edward Auwarter had been listed as the trainer.

In October, Elliott granted stalls to Juan Vazquez, who this year was banned from most Mid-Atlantic tracks but has been allowed to race at Parx. Before being given stalls, Vazquez was training off a farm in Delaware. Although he is 31 for 166 this year, a 19 percent win average, the size of his operation has been greatly reduced.

“I didn’t know Juan when I came here, but I haven’t had any problems with him at all,” Elliott said. “Juan and I have talked in depth, and he knows he is on the one-strike plan. One strike and you’re out.”

Vazquez has had both medication violations and temper problems.

“I take responsibility for letting Juan run and stable here,” Elliott said. “We have talked about his temper, and he knows how he has to act here. One thing I will say is he runs an immaculate operation. During the festival, we were giving out awards to the best turned-out horse each race, and when Juan had a horse in, he was almost an automatic.”

Elliott is happy how some things have gone this year but knows there is a lot of work to do.

“It looks like we might be up three-quarters of a horse per race this year, and our daily average handle is up about 8 percent,” Elliott said. “I’m pleased with that. I’m disappointed that the Pennsylvania Derby was not elevated to a Grade 1. Our regular stakes also were a bit of a disappointment. You’d get eight and think you were all right, and then they would scratch down to five or four.”

Elliott knows Parx needs to improve its image with bettors.

“Our brand needs to strengthen,” he said. “It won’t happen overnight, but there are a lot of ways to do it. I think the fall festival was a noble attempt, but it also exposed our flaws. The festival will be back, but it will be tweaked.”

As part of the festival agreement, Parx agreed to make $4.4 million in capital improvements for the horsemen. The paddock was renovated over the summer. Beginning Jan. 4, the track will be closed for training for two weeks while a new safety rail is installed. The outside rail will be replaced in the spring.

Elliott played a key role in having shock-wave therapy machines banned from Parx. Shock-wave therapy can have a numbing effect on a horse’s legs.

“I spoke with vets, and the consensus was shock wave is a long-term therapeutic treatment but that it has no place at the racetrack,” Elliott said. “Horses are here to race, and if they need long-term therapy, they probably shouldn’t be here.”

◗ Ramon Preciado is on the verge of winning his second straight Parx training title. Through Tuesday, Preciado was 145 for 452 at Parx, a 32 percent win average. Patricia Farro is second in the standings with 110 wins.

With four cards left in the meet, jockey Frankie Pennington has 119 wins, 14 more than J.D. Acosta. Pennington also led the Parx standings last year and in 2006.