02/09/2008 12:00AM

Track reopens with slots, purse hike


When Penn National Race Course first opened its doors for Thoroughbred racing on Aug. 30, 1972, 10,686 people showed up.

It might be difficult to top that figure for Tuesday's grand re-opening of the Hollywood Casino at Penn National, but a big crowd is expected, some eager to try their luck at the newly installed slot machines and others to welcome back the return of live racing after nearly a two-month absence.

Pending approval of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board following two nights of test runs, the Hollywood Casino is scheduled to open Tuesday. Later, at 6:45 p.m., Penn National will present its first live racing card since Dec. 21.

Racing fans will notice the horses are running for significantly higher purses. The first condition book for 2008 has a record nightly average distribution of approximately $110,000, a 32 percent increase from $83,000 in December.

Tuesday night's feature, a first-level allowance sprint for fillies and mares, which kicks off a nine-race card, carries a purse of $20,800. On the same program, $3,500 claimers will run for a $10,100 purse.

Live racing will be held Wednesdays through Saturdays, plus selected Tuesdays, with a new policy of free admission.

Racing fans will have a number of options to view and wager on the live races. On the first floor, the Paddock Cafe, with seating for about 100 and betting windows, overlooks the saddling paddock and has one entrance that flows directly onto the casino floor and another leading to the trackside apron.

For those who prefer to focus on simulcasts from other tracks, the second floor has a theater that will be open from 11:30 a.m. to midnight, with 24 50-inch television monitors.

The big attraction, however, will be the Hollywood Casino, featuring 2,000 slots and 20 electronic blackjack tables.

The upper floors will feature 60 season boxes overlooking the track and four banquet halls, each named for a notable horse who raced at Penn National, including the great John Henry, who won a race locally in 1978 and lost one a year later.

The new five-story, $310 million building, containing 360,000 square feet, is connected to a parking garage that has room for 2,350 vehicles.

Two equity investors, Fortress Investment Group LLC and Centerbridge Partners LP, are in the midst of a deal to buy Penn National Gaming, the track's parent company, for $67 a share, which translates to $6.1 billion. Shareholders approved the sale in December and it is expected to be finalized in June.