Officials optimistic that Pa. tracks will stay open

Ed Maseiangelo watches races at Harrah’s four days a week but said he spends more gambling money playing blackjack.

Representatives of the Wolf administration and the state's beleaguered horse-racing industry returned to the negotiating table Friday, saying they were optimistic they could prevent a statewide shutdown of tracks.

But they warned that any deal must include a long-term funding solution.

"Racing is not going to be shut down," said Todd Mostoller, executive director of the Pennsylvania's Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, who participated in the talks. "I'm extremely optimistic. I'd be shocked if it was."

However, Gov. Wolf's press secretary, Jeff Sheridan, remained noncommittal.

"Without consensus, we will be forced to shut down horse racing," he said. "It's just a broken system."

On Thursday, the administration said it was no longer willing to spend millions of dollars to keep the industry afloat. Revenues, both sides agree, have been declining for some time, and state and racing officials have been quietly seeking a solution.

Mostoller described Friday's negotiations as "cordial" but warned that a shutdown would be detrimental. Jobs would be lost and lives changed, he said.

"Everyone's working for a solution," he said.

"We've come a long way in a day," said Russell Redding, state secretary of agriculture. "The last thing we want to do is stop racing."

The state Racing Fund, which pays for a variety of industry services and requires about $20 million a year, can no longer be funded through a tax on wagers, and the sides are working to find new sources of revenue.

Negotiations are to continue through the weekend, Redding said. He also said that only notification of a shutdown would be required by the end of next week. An actual shutdown would not commence for an additional 30 days.

Redding said Thursday's warning served as a "wake-up call" but added that no one should be surprised by the situation.

"This has been a steady decline," he said. Wagers have fallen 71 percent since 2001.

Far from the negotiating table, the struggle that racing faces could be easily found.

On a cloudless afternoon, horses named Crossfire Hurricane and Drama Free raced around the track at Harrah's Philadelphia in Chester, with the Delaware River glittering in the distance.

At Parx Casino in Bensalem, the racing was confined to TV screens. Live racing happens only Saturday through Tuesday, and the few dozen patrons sat quietly, programs open on the table, pens in hand.

There was no surprise about the prospect of a shutdown.

Ed Maseiangelo, 66, of Wayne, said he watches the harness races four days a week before he spends most of his gambling money playing blackjack upstairs at Harrah's.

"I'm just killing time," he said, a Nicaraguan cigar between his fingers. "It's too early to be gambling. There are a lot of idiots this time of day.

"I learned my lesson years ago not to put big money on these horse races. It's too easy for the jockeys to pull their horses back [allowing someone else to win]. These races are fixed. And if people think they're fixed, they're not going to bet on it."

Maseiangelo, a retired pit boss at the Resorts casino in Atlantic City, said the track raises too little money to take on the obligations Wolf is demanding.

But "I don't think the state should have to pay for it," he said. "The owner of the track is making all the money."

"He can shut it down. I don't care," said Gene Palermo, 60, of Norwood, Delaware County, who was at Harrah's. "I just do this to kill time. It's more of a social thing" for retirees.

William Zamensky, sitting in the lobby at Parx, was looking forward to Saturday's live races. But he had no illusions about the fate of the sport.

"There are no young people at all," said Zamensky, 73, who regularly makes the trip to Parx from New Jersey.

"This is a dying business," he said. "You come here on a Monday or Tuesday, you can throw a bowling ball through here and you won't hit anybody."

Sitting at the bar at Parx, brothers Salvatore and Emil Caiazza from Northeast Philadelphia were shedding no tears. After all, the only racing to watch at Parx was on TV.

"I can go home and watch TV. My screen is bigger," said Emil Caiazza. "The people who run this track, they don't know what they are doing."

"Let's face it, without the casino they would be closed," said Salvatore Caiazza.

And if it were to close? "I'd go to the casino," he said.

Bill Bennett sat at Parx Friday morning with photocopies of a newspaper article about the shutdown threat. Bennett said he would miss the social aspect if it happened.

"You get to know people. It's kind of nice," he said. "People don't look at it that way from the outside. But they don't know the people. It's good people."

mnussbaum@philly.com

610-313-8114@MatthewNussbaum