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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Delaware Park's Diamond Anniversary Passes Without Fanfare

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Kevin Noonan
Kevin Noonan
Kevin Noonan has covered and commented on the Delaware sports scene for more than 30 years, everything from amateur recreation leagues and high schools to local colleges and the Philadelphia professional teams. He’s been voted Delaware Sportswriter of the Year multiple times and currently covers the Philadelphia Eagles for CBSSports.com and teaches creative writing courses at Wilmington University.

You probably missed it, but don’t feel bad if you did, because you’re not alone. And that’s the real problem Delaware Park faces in the 21st century – hardly anybody cares anymore.

Delaware Park, the thoroughbred racing track in Stanton, closed out its 75th season on Saturday. It’s no secret that horse racing isn’t the popular spectator sport it used to be and it’s not even the popular betting sport that it used to be. That’s sad, but also a sign of the changing times.

Delaware Park has everything going for it – location, tradition, reputation and one of the nicest plants in the country. But it used to have an edge that it’s now lost and that’s not a good portent for the future. Delaware Park was thriving a few years ago – or at least as much as any track is today – because it had something to offer that no other local track did, with the exception of Dover Downs and Harrington, which are harness racing tracks (a sport that is dying an even quicker death than thoroughbred racing). That advantage, as you probably already know, was slot machines.

Those machines had a one-two punch that kept Delaware Park on its feet and even allowed it to make some much-needed improvements to its aging facility. The revenue from slots gave Delaware Park the money it needed to increase its purses significantly and that, of course, attracted the more successful trainers and their horses. Plus slots and horse racing share one thing in common – betting money – and so people who like that sort of thing had two reasons to travel to Stanton. For several years it was the perfect marriage and Delaware Park appeared to be back on its feet after a long slump.

But Delaware Park doesn’t have a monopoly on that anymore. Pennsylvania has already passed a law allowing casinos and slots and other forms of gambling at its tracks and Maryland will soon follow. Since much of Delaware Park’s support came from those neighboring states, it’s obvious that it will lose business to them. Even Delawareans who have gone to Stanton for years are now heading to those other places for a little variety.

That was evident this past season, when Delaware Park had to cancel several race cards because it didn’t have enough entries. The purses also decreased some because of the lost revenue and that added to the problems.

Delaware Park stills draws nice crowds for its stakes races, but on most days the place looks like a ghost town, at least if you’re sitting in the bleachers. Another sign of the times is that there will be a large crowd sitting around tables inside the facility so they can watch (and bet on) multiple races via simulcasting, which, along with the slots, really saved Delaware Park.

We’ve mentioned it before, but it just doesn’t seem right that you can sit in the bleachers on a gorgeous afternoon and watch and cheer for real, live horses that are running right in front of you, but there will be more people in the basement, so to speak, watching a bunch of big-screen televisions and betting on races in Louisiana.

Delaware Park will survive, but it might never thrive again. Nobody – not even DelPark’s management — expects a return to those golden days of the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s when the place would be packed with men wearing suits and ties and women wearing dresses and pearls and horse racing took up three full pages in The Morning News and Evening Journal. Now you get the Delaware Park entries and results and an occasional story, but that’s about it.

And there doesn’t appear to be another magic wand, like slots, that can be waved to save the sport in general and Delaware Park in particular. Competition will only increase and many of the people who supported the track for years are now placing their bets with St. Peter, while younger people seem to have little or no interest in the sport.

It’s a sign of the times, and even if we don’t like reading that sign, we can’t ignore it.

Contact Kevin Noonan at knoonan32@aol.com.

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