08/29/2007 11:00PM

Slots yield big first-year purses


ERIE, Pa. - Presque Isle Downs, which opens its inaugural season Saturday, is a testament to the power of slot machines.

Although the track is located in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, near the shores of Lake Erie, its horsemen's purse account already contains $13 million, thanks mostly to the casino's 2,000 slot machines which opened for business Feb. 28. Under Pennsylvania law, that entire amount must be distributed during the 25-day meet, meaning that purses will average approximately $500,000 a day.

Through Aug. 28, patrons have wagered an amazing $987,815,903 at Presque Isle, with the house taking in $92,182,617. Twelve percent of that amount is earmarked for purses. The purse account is distributed 80 percent to purses, 16 percent to breeders awards, and 4 percent to health benefits for jockeys.

Money talks and racing secretary Joe Narcavish received stall applications from more than 200 horsemen, many more than the newly erected barn area - which has 500 regular stalls and 48 in a receiving barn - can accommodate. A mixed bag of trainers are expected for the meet, including Steve Asmussen, Scott Lake, Todd Beattie, Niall O'Callaghan, Ben Perkins, Graham Motion, and Dale Baird. The meet's riders will include Miguel Mena, Deshawn Parker, Corey Lanerie, Eddie Martin Jr., Rod Madrigal, Dana Whitney, Joe Hampshire Jr., Rosemary Homeister Jr., and Terry Houghton.

Just in case anyone need directions to Presque Isle, the track is set hard in the Rust Belt, 100 miles northeast of Cleveland, 125 miles north of Pittsburgh, and 95 miles southwest of Buffalo - the largest population centers in the region. Erie itself has a population of 102,000 according to the 2006 U.S. census, meaning Erie has less than 25 percent of the population of Cleveland, 33 percent that of Pittsburgh, and 40 percent of Buffalo.

Presque Isle is owned by MTR Gaming Corp., the owners of Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort in West Virginia. The meet will run six days a week through Sept. 29 with a first post of 5:30 p.m. Eastern.

A 100-day meet, from May through September, is planned for 2008, when projections call for approximately $300,000 to be given away each race day. These figures are a bit different than the purses at the last racetrack to run in this region, Erie Downs. Before closing in 1987, Erie Downs purses averaged $1,500 per race.

Races will be run over a one-mile track with a synthetic surface built by Michael Dickinson's Tapeta Footings. Presque Isle will be the first track in America to use Tapeta, which Golden Gate Fields is also currently having installed. According to the Tapeta website, the surface is 53 percent sand, 5 percent rubber, and 42 percent secret recipe. Tapeta is Latin for "carpet," and carpet fibers are a big part of the recipe. Dickinson said it took him four years and 52 different formulas to finally perfect Tapeta, which has been installed at his Tapeta Farm for years and which is also in use at the Fair Hill training center in Maryland.

"I thought it would take three months, but it ended up taking four years," Dickinson said of the process.

Dickinson said he is confident Tapeta will stand up well to fluctuating temperatures because it was designed in America, where the climate varies greatly by season.

Dickinson plans on running three or four horses at Presque Isle this year, giving an all new meaning to a horse taking his racetrack with him.

Trainer Wayne McDonnell was one of the first trainers in the barn area when it opened Aug. 11, and has 12 horses on the grounds.

"I have worked them three times over the surface now," he said. "I was expecting it to be nice, but it is 10 times better than what I thought."

A total of 13 stakes worth $1.7 million are scheduled for the meet, with the $400,000 Presque Isle Downs Master, for fillies and mares at six furlongs, on Sept 15 the richest. Presque Isle management is hoping the race will serve as a prep for the new $1 million Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Monmouth Park. Two other stakes will be contested that evening, the $175,000 Presque Isle Mile and the $175,000 Karl Boyes Memorial. Six stakes for Pennsylvania-breds will be run Sept. 21.

"Everything so far has been positive feedback about the track and barn area," director of racing Debbie Howells said. "We are looking forward to getting the meet under way."

The opening-day feature is the $100,000 Inaugural for 3-year-old fillies at six furlongs. Tres Dream, trained by Asmussen, will try to duplicate her last race when she won the $50,000 Ponca City at Remington Park by 5 1/4 lengths. Prior to that, she won an allowance race at Churchill Downs. Her come-from-behind running style should work well for her jockey, Lanerie, as there is plenty of early speed in the race.

Dicey Girl won her first two starts, both at Delaware Park, and then finished third in the restricted Weekend Delight at Saratoga last time out. She will be ridden by Mario Pino for the first time. The lone Pennsylvania-bred in the field is Cantrel, trained by Lake. She has won 4 of 6 starts this year, all at Philadelphia Park. David Cohen will retain the mount.

First-year purse adjustments

The purses in this year's condition book are listed at next year's $300,000-a-day level, not this year's $500,000. In a plan jointly conceived by MTR Gaming Group and the Pennsylvania Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, this year's payouts will be 75 percent higher than the figure in the condition book. First place will get 75 percent of the listed purse; second place, 45 percent; third place, 20 percent; fourth place, 15 percent; fifth, 10 percent; sixth, 5 percent; seventh, 3 percent; and eighth, 2 percent. So although the lowest listed purse in the condition book is $14,000, the race will actually be worth $24,500.