Those residing north of Philadelphia, close to the Pennsy/Jersey border, no longer need to schlep down to Atlantic City to satisfy their slot machine/video poker joneses . . . not since 2100+ new slot machines were made available for the use of the teeming masses at the former Keystone Race Track in suburban Bensalem on December 18.
It was "Philadelphia Park". Now, it's Philadelphia Park Casino and Racetrack.
Though legislatively approved in 2004, this was a long time coming for Philly Park. The complex reconstruction project claimed virtually all of the first floor interior - and all of the second level - for the slots, and associated accommodations. Horseplayers can still watch live racing, close-up, once they work their way around the rows and rows of ground-level machines and march through blacked-out glass doors to the concrete apron facing the track.
There's a modest simulcast/betting area on the south end of the main floor, hard by the paddock - but anytime there's more than fifty people in it, it will feel most crowded. Otherwise, racing speculators seeking full service must hie themselves to the third public level for daylight, wide-open spaces, and mutual clerks in sufficient numbers.
It's fervently hoped by local horsemen that the influx of slot cash will appreciably pad the daily purse distributions at Philly, now at the $175,000 level. Nine percent of slot revenues are earmarked for track use. Extrapolators figure that by midsummer, daily purses will run close to $300,000 per day, with the bulk of the increase dedicated to punching up allowance and stakes purses. If this sustains, many Eastern racing fans fervently hope that there'll be a marked upgrade in the local trainer and jockey colonies. While racing on weekends, Philly is almost entirely excluded from Nevada simulcast menus on weekends, and has been for years . . . while remaining a simo staple on otherwise-light Mondays and Tuesdays.
Enter on the first floor, run the gamut of rows of penny slots on both sides, and emerge in the signup area for the track's club cards used to track slot play. Lines eight, ten, twelve deep have been the order of the day, even during the week, but should lessen once the bulk of regulars have completed their paperwork.
The main floor is dominated by reel slots. Midweek, it didn't feel cramped, though I suspect a Saturday evening might be a different story. You do feel that ol' casino isolation, with any distraction which might remind you that you need to be somewhere else, minimized or eliminated. Cocktail service exists, but the waitresses are scarce.
Escalators are best for floor transfers (elevators are sloooooow), so up to the second level, we go. The main restaurant and buffet are on this level . . . as are hundreds more slots, including a reasonable representation of video-poker machines, absent at such competitive Eastern outposts as Delaware Park.
Considering the demoninations, the VP's no bargain - you can do appreciably better at Ay Cee. There's 8/5 (referencing payouts for full houses and flushes, on each pay table) on dollar Jacks Or Better, 6/5 dollar Bonus, and 9/6 dollar Double Bonus. Quarter Double/Double's available, at 7/5 rates. Same scale applies on many of the dollar machines, but 9/5 Double/Double's included in the dollar-denom Game Kings. . . a better way to go, so as to minimize your entertainment expenses.
Up one more level, to where the bulk of the horseplayers are winding up. Besides the traditional mutuel bays and viewing areas, the third-level racing-dedicated area holds the old individual TV-monitor carels which helped make the pre-racino first floor one of the most pleasant simulcast facilities in the East. With an established, funded local wagering account, you can play from your seat on what are called "Tiny Tims", on which you can log on, then punch in any bet you can afford at any track Philly beams in . . . and they take virtually all of 'em.
Near-term crowding on relatively big race days is not going to be fun. Kentucky Derby day is already a concern. But racing people are willing to put up with the culture clash between horseplayers and slot addicts for a year or so, with what will certainly be improved racing - and given that a stand alone casino-dedicated structure should be completed and operating by the end of 2008. Most of the current slots will migrate there, leaving the bulk of the original structure for the racing aficionados, though a goodly number of slots will remain.
Even with limited marketing efforts on behalf of the December 18 "soft opening", and modest crowds compared to what's surely to come, the slots cleared more than half a million dollars that day. What is termed by the marketing gurus to be "Philly's Home Game" is already big - and promises to get much, much bigger. The hosts will prosper, and the players - well, hope they have a good time.