Delaware Park a gem of a track and a new favorite

July 18th, 2016

I didn't (and still don't) know how to explain it. Perhaps it was simply the thrill of seeing someplace new for the first time in more than a decade. Maybe my memories of visits elsewhere had become too faded for proper comparison. Or it could be I'm just a sucker for falling in love with places whose glory days were long ago.

In truth, it was probably a combination of all three that led me to proclaim to my family (and a couple friends via text) upon my departure from Delaware Park Saturday afternoon that it was one of my favorite Thoroughbred tracks. Ever. As in, dare I say, top three (here's a chronological list I'm comparing it to).

With 48 hours of reflection, I stand by my initial judgment. Although I spent a rather short amount of time there (roughly three hours), Delaware Park grew on me like few tracks have.

Like other racinos it's primarily in the gaming business these days, but still looks like a classic American racetrack, the kind built in the Depression/post-war era for Saturday crowds of 20,000-30,000. While it was sparse in the seating and apron areas nearest the casino, the clubhouse area where the racing crowd congregates was lively and bustling, inside and outside on all floors, on the track's biggest day.

As mentioned here and elsewhere, Delaware's paddock is among the most beautiful in all the U.S. It truly has few equals. The adjacent picnic and shady "backyard" area near the clubhouse turn is a wonderful spot for families with young children to hang out. Trust me, I had to spend significant time there while my daughter enjoyed the inflatable slide and bouncy house.

In common with perhaps my all-time favorite, Hialeah, Delaware Park offers a bit of an escape from the outside world. With so many trees surrounding the facility, it's much deserving of its "Park" moniker and is one of the few tracks I've visited where I felt I was in some sort of oasis.

As much I enjoyed the aesthetics and atmosphere of the track, the controversy surrounding the official result of the $750,000 Delaware H. (G1) displeased a large swath of those in attendance and an untold number across the nation. A chorus of boos rose from the crowd when the first replay of the start was broadcast on the large infield screen, and was amplified when it was announced that the stewards would take no action against the winning favorite I'm a Chatterbox, who bore in badly and caused a chain reaction against three of her five rivals leaving the quarter-mile chute.

Even with my semi-obstructed view of the start, I clearly saw early bumping and it was definitely a shock that the inquiry sign was not immediately lit after the race's conclusion. Even more surprising is that the judges apparently would not have looked at it at all if not for a jockey's objection lodged by Ricardo Santana aboard runner-up Paid Up Subscriber. I wonder why the jockeys of the two longshots affected also did not claim foul as they had an even bigger grievance.

I'm a Chatterbox was the best on paper before the Delaware H., and I'm guessing she would have proved it even without the early-race shenanigans. However, there's no question that a large segment of the betting public's faith in the product was diminished in light of this decision. Delaware Park can be among the most gorgeous places in the country to go racing, but that will not ultimately matter if those whose wagering dollars make the wheels go 'round feel as if they're not getting a square deal.

A final thought on the Delaware Park experience is that this track is too nice a place to have to endure nearby competition for horses and handle. After nearly five decades, the saturation of racing and overlapping dates in the Mid-Atlantic region has still not been resolved.

On Saturday, Delaware handled $2,506,436, compared with $2,019,821 at Laurel and $1,059,268 at Parx. Why these three tracks continue to race concurrently is anyone's guess. In a more enlightened era, Delaware Park was the summer haunt for both the Maryland folks (when Bowie, Pimlico, and Laurel were dark) and the Philadelphia set (between meets at Garden State and Atlantic City). I now understand why.

Theoretically, wouldn't it be better if the collective handle of $5,585,525 went one way instead of three? That would have been fourth highest in the country Saturday behind Belmont, Del Mar, and Gulfstream. The post-1968 status quo, in my opinion, has been a disaster for the region's tracks. There has to be a better way.

In summation, I found Delaware Park to be a gem. Plan a visit if you haven't been. I hope to go back sooner rather than later.

(Vance Hanson photo)