Thoroughbred track exceeds last season by more than $11 million

Presque Isle Downs & Casino hit the jackpot in its 11th full season of thoroughbred racing, surpassing the 2017 total handle by more than $11 million while providing excitement and safety on the Tapeta surface oval.

In his first year as director of racing in addition to his duties as the Presque Isle Downs & Casino director of finance, Matt Ennis lauded the contributions of Racing Secretary Allan Plever and Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent Association Executive Director Todd Mostoller to help provide a surge to record $78,127,458 in off-track handle. Adding live on track and state handle, the combined total of $83,042,838 was $11,116,238 more than the 2017 total of $71,926,600.

“Todd (Mostoller) recommended Allan (Plever) to General Manager Kevin O’Sullivan and I, who has decades of experience as a racing secretary and has the creativity to make races more attractive to bettors and a relationship with the horsemen to help them in placing their horses in the right races,’’ Ennis said. “Thanks to Todd, Allan just fell in our laps.’’

Ennis, 48, an Erie native who graduated from Mercyhurst Prep and John Carroll, replaced Debbie Howells, the original director of racing when the track opened in September 2007 with a 25-day meet. Howells retired in 2017.

“I’m elated how this year went,” Ennis said. “The casino was licensed predicated on building a race track here to boost the Pennsylvania horse racing industry. Racing has always been handle-driven for our revenue and we consider our 2018 live season a complete success.”

Ennis helped boost wagering by adding rolling daily doubles (races 1-2, 2-3, 3-4, etc.) instead of the first and final two races, and the Pick 6 Jackpot (winners of the final six races) that has become popular. Presque Isle Downs also opened a week earlier on May 14 and had four days (Monday through Thursday) of racing for five weeks until Sunday racing began June 17.

Plever, 66, a Pittsburgh native, noted early in the season that when the barns (capacity of 851) are not full and Presque Isle awaits horses from tracks closing, racing four days relieved the stress of filling races.

Only five four-horse races that produce low wagering — all had pre-race scratches — were run in a season that had 796 of 800 allotted races. Fourteen races were canceled (11 because of heat and three by lightning) and 10 were made up by adding a race to the eight-race programs.

A total of 5,826 horses ran in 2018, a 7.32 average per race, almost even with the 2017 total of 5,883 in 800 races, a 7.35 average.

“It gets tougher every year to fill the barns at race tracks because the national foals produced average has been dropping each year,” Mostoller said. “But because of the Tapeta surface, we had just two casualties, which is phenomenal. We continually have the safest track in America.”

The season featured a second straight riding championship for Pablo Morales and the third time in four years that Teresa Connelly was the top trainer. Connelly saddled 5-year-old mare Rare Integrity to seven wins, tops at Presque Isle. Four-time jockey champion Antonio Gallardo drove 4-year-old filly Hotshot Anna to the winner’s circle in the Grade 2 Masters Stakes, the track’s signature race.

Ennis and his staff are working towards the takeover by Churchill Downs from Eldorado Resorts, which bought out original owners Mountaineer Gaming in 2014.

“We expect this will happen in the first quarter of 2019,” said Ennis, who has worked at Presque Isle Downs since 2006 before the casino opened in early 2007. “We look forward to the input from Churchill Downs to build upon the improvements we made in 2018.”


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