Bernard Daney doesn’t remember the exact year – sometime around 1940 – and he doesn’t even remember who won the race. But he does remember how special it felt the first time he watched the Delaware Handicap at Delaware Park.
“I was maybe 15 at the time and I watched it over the hedge,’’ he said. “I haven’t missed one since.’’
Today, Daney is chairman of the Delaware Racing Commission and he was on hand this week when the Stanton track unveiled its field for the 74th Delaware Handicap, which will be run this Saturday.
It’s a small field, but an impressive one, led by the top-ranked thoroughbred in North America, Havre de Grace. And if that wasn’t enough, the second-ranked thoroughbred, Blind Luck, is also in the five-entry race, as is Life at Ten, which won this race last year. So there will be some serious horse power at the starting gate on Saturday.
Havre de Grace was the early 4-5 favorite, followed by Blind Luck (7-5), Life at Ten (5-1) and Thundering Emelia and Love’s Blush (both 20-1).
Big-picture wise, the fact that it’s the 74th running of this stakes race makes it the longest running major sporting event in Delaware. The times, of course, have changed for horse racing since the first Delaware Handicap in 1937. Even though the purse for Saturday’s big race is $750,000 and it was only $68,000 just 11 years ago (and $11,800 when it was first run back in ‘37), thoroughbred racing is literally running for its life. Horse racing is the sport of kings, but if you look around the globe you won’t see many kings sitting on thrones anymore.
And if it weren’t for two relatively recent phenomena, slots and simulcasting, a lot of tracks wouldn’t be in business anymore, and that probably includes Delaware Park. Still, DelPark has managed to hang on pretty well, at least compared to most tracks around the country.
“I think the biggest reason for that is the commitment the track has made to put money back into the business,’’ Daney said. “I go to tracks all over the country, and I hate to say it, but most of them are dumps. At Delaware Park, we’re fortunate enough to have quality racing and one of the nicest facilities there is. That’s a pretty good combination.”
But, like the Christiana Riverfront, Delaware Park is a local gem that not enough local people take advantage of. And that’s a shame, because racing at Delaware Park is fun and it’s also a cheap date – parking and admission are both free and you can bring in your own food and eat in a nice picnic area that even has a playground for the kids. Try doing that at a Phillies or Eagles game.
Plus that picnic area is right next to one of the nicest paddock areas of any track in the country and grown-ups and kids alike can get an up-close and personal look at the jockeys and the horses. And, of course, Mom and Dad can slip away and put a couple of bucks on one of the ponies if they want to.
Despite all of those plusses and perks, attendance at Delaware Park is usually pretty sparse – there are usually more people inside betting on simulcast races than are in the bleachers watching live ones – although things will be jumping this Saturday, the biggest day of the year. People who normally don’t go to the track will show up on Saturday because the competition is so good and the social scene is so much fun.
So, for one day at least, it will almost seem like 1940 again, except that the men won’t be wearing suits and the women won’t be wearing dresses and instead of reading The Racing Form, people will be playing with the hand-held device of their choice. Hopefully, they’ll put them down when the races start.