04/19/2006 11:00PM

New-look Delaware set to open


Delaware Park returns to live racing on Saturday with a new look in the clubhouse, a new contract with its horsemen, and all the love and largesse that millions of dollars in slot-machine revenue can provide.

Ten years after slot machines were legalized at Delaware, the track has evolved into a stable, if not prosperous, fixture on the East Coast, attracting horsemen and jockeys from states along the eastern seaboard. It's a far cry from the beginning of the 1990's, when a slots-less Delaware Park was struggling to survive.

The opening-day card will be the first of 136 live racing days this year, and the first opening day for Delaware's ownership group since Bill Rickman Sr., the real-estate developer and horse owner who bought Delaware in 1983, died at 84 last October. Rickman's son, William Rickman Jr., is president and chief executive officer of the track.

Bill Fasy, the track's general manager, said recently that racing remains Delaware Park's primary focus, despite the millions of dollars that the track has reaped from its 2,500 slot machines. Since closing its 2005 live meet in October, Delaware has spent $7.5 million on renovations to the first floor of the clubhouse and the backside, all with the hopes of improving the racing experience for fans and horsemen.

Average daily overnight purse distribution this year will fall between $210,000 and $240,000.

"Racing remains our number one priority for this track," Fasy said. "It's something that the Rickmans have pushed, and it's something we will continue to push."

In February, the track signed a new agreement with its horsemen that guarantees 135 days of live racing a year for the next three years, and requires that Delaware provide year-round training and stabling facilities for horsemen. The agreement has horsemen excited about the future, according to Bessie Gruwell, the executive director of the Delaware Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

"We really want to thank the whole staff for everything that they've done," Gruwell said. "This new agreement is being enthusastically received by everyone."

Currently, 1,450 horses are stabled on the Delaware Park backside, which this year was outfitted with new wash stations and retention ponds in order to comply with federal water-use regulations. The renovations also included several aesthetic improvements, Gruwell and Fasy said.

Delaware is expected to allow horses and trainers to remain on the grounds beginning Dec. 1, and Gruwell said she expected about 600 horses to train year-round in the state. Most trainers currently ship out when the meet closes, to tracks in Florida, Ohio, Maryland, Louisiana, and other states, Gruwell said.

"This should be a real big help to all of our local people," Gruwell said.

The renovations in the clubhouse were primarily focused on the track's racebook, Fasy said, including the construction of the "largest video wall of any racetrack in the U.S." Also in the clubhouse area is a new bar themed around an English pub, and the addition of simulcast carrels.

During the meet, Delaware plans to erect a Jumbotron in the infield, but the track is still taking measurements on the screen and contemplating its location. According to Fasy, the Jumbotron will likely be installed by July 16, the day of the Grade 2, $1 million Delaware Handicap and three other stakes, the highlight of the meet.

The racing-related renovations are separate from another major expansion project that Delaware hopes to begin in 2007 or 2008, after receiving local regulatory approvals. That project may include the construction of a hotel and restaurants surrounding the track, as Delaware Park prepares to compete with new slot-machine facilities in nearby Pennsylvania.

Delaware Park's attention to racing appears to be paying off in the track's ability to attract trainers. This year, John Servis, the Pennsylvania-based trainer who won the 2004 Derby and Preakness with Smarty Jones, will have 40 horses at the track, according to track publicity director Chris Sobocinski. In addition, Larry Jones, the Midwest trainer who won the Delaware Handicap last year with Island Sand, will have his entire stable at Delaware Park this summer.

Delaware's three leading jockeys from 2005 - Ramon Dominguez, Mario Pino, and Robbie Albarado - are all back. Dominguez, who had been the riding champion for three straight years at the track, rode this winter for the first time at Aqueduct in New York, leading to speculation that he would remain in New York for the spring and summer.

On the betting front, Delaware Park will continue to offer the choose six, a pick six-type bet that debuted last year at the track but was only available to Delaware Park patrons. This year, the track will not seed the choose six pool each day with $5,000, and instead will hope that handle grows with the addition of New Jersey bettors into the pool.

"Personally, I like the bet," Fasy said. "But I don't know what will happen without the seed. We're hoping that New Jersey will give us the critical mass."

The opening-day feature, the $75,000 Peach Blossom for 3-year-old fillies going six furlongs, attracted Maryland-based star Celestial Legend. Unbeaten in her first six career starts, including four stakes, Celestial Legend will be making her first start since finishing second in the Grade 3 Cicada at Aqueduct a month ago.

The eight-horse field also includes the Todd Pletcher-trained Somethinaboutbetty, winner of the Maryland Juvenile Fillies Championship at Laurel, and Hello Liberty, who makes her third start of the season following a pair of sharp seconds at Oaklawn Park. Somethinaboutbetty is cross-entered in Saturday's $125,000 Country Life Farm at Pimlico.